J.R. Smith has been playing fantastic basketball for the last month, and his new approach to the game may just force the New York Knicks to take him out of the sixth man role he's grown so accustomed to.
In his last 15 games, Smith is averaging 22.5 points on 47 percent shooting and has earned 7.2 free throws per game. All of these are significant jumps on his season averages, and based on how they've come about, they should be sustainable moving forward.
The main change in Smith's game has been his aggression. No longer is he settling for bad shots; he's making good on his athleticism by attacking the rim as his primary source of scoring.
Smith's jumper is still one of the best in the game, so now that he's proving he can be a threat driving to the basket, he's creating space for himself on the perimeter as well.
Possibly more impressive has been the way Smith has put in the dirty work on the other end of the floor. He's grabbing 5.4 boards per game over this stretch, and has also significantly improved his effort on defense.
Now that he's a consistent force and someone who won't shoot his team out of games, it makes a lot of sense to move him to the starting five for the playoffs.
One of the main reasons Smith was moved to the bench in the first place was because of his inconsistency. With the way he can hurt the team when at his worst, he had to know that his minutes had to be earned.
During this career-year for Smith, he has done much more than earn those minutes, turning the Knicks' Big Three into a Big Four.
In the playoffs, teams are expected to go with their best five, and their important players are expected to play much more minutes.
Considering his age and durability, Smith could play 40 minutes a night, and at that point there's really no advantage to having those minutes come off the bench.
There also isn't any worry that Smith will struggle to play in the same lineup as Carmelo Anthony. He's no longer a volume jump shooter, and having him on the floor means that teams can't overcommit to defending Melo.
In a way, moving J.R. to the starting lineup in time for the playoffs could be a reward for his good play. It's a way of Mike Woodson letting him know that good things happen if he plays smart basketball.
It's also worth noting that Smith is likely to hit free agency this coming offseason, and the opportunity to start elsewhere—coupled with the fact that the Knicks will be able to offer him a maximum of only $5 million per year—could pry him away from New York.
He told ESPN at the start of the season that he sees himself as a starting-quality player, and that coming off the bench has been "frustrating" for him.
Clearly Smith has had no problem putting his frustration behind him this season, but at the same time he has also done enough to earn a starting role.
The bottom line is that in the playoffs the Knicks are likely only going to go nine deep. Smith is going to be on the court for the majority of most games, making him a key part of the team rather than a change-of-pace option.
With the way he's playing, as long as Smith is getting his minutes, the Knicks are going to be in a good situation. Starting him could act as motivation, but if not, then they can at least be comfortable in knowing he can be effective off the bench.
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