As a lifelong New York Knicks fan, I'm used to incompetence. I've seen terrible draft picks, worse trades, bad coaches who stick around way too long, and good coaches who stick to Alonzo Mourning's ankle. I've learned to live in a perennial state of frustration with my players, coaches and owner (mostly my owner), tempering my expectations and reactions to whatever ridiculous distraction inevitably occurs during the course of a season.
Yet this whole J.R. Smith thing might just be the tipping point for my blood pressure.
The illustrious Smith, he of the 34.8 percent shooting prowess, was surreptitiously benched Thursday as the team beat the reigning champion Miami Heat, 102-92, at Madison Square Garden behind strong performances from Carmelo Anthony and Raymond Felton. Smith had been fined $50,000 Wednesday by the National Basketball Association for untying Shawn Marion's shoelace during a free-throw attempt in Sunday's win over the Dallas Mavericks. He tried the sophomoric stunt again Tuesday despite warnings from the league to "refrain from further conduct of this nature," and was disciplined a day later.
Smith then took to Twitter to make amends for his foolish actions, apologizing "to my team, to the league an most of all you the fans!" That's great, J.R., but while you're at it, you might as well apologize for every stupid thing you've done since re-signing with the Knicks this past offseason. Or better yet, just stop doing stupid things.
That's too much to ask of a player who hasn't been shy about his affinity for pot or creating drama with opponents and his own front office, and worst of all, hasn't met a shot he wouldn't take. Last month, Smith caused a stir after the Knicks decided to release his brother Chris, in order to sign center Jeremy Tyler from their D-League affiliate to fill the big shoes left empty by Tyson Chandler's wavering health. It's widely believed that the team signed Chris in the first place to appease J.R. during his contract negotiations, emblematic of both the player's bratty nature and the Knicks' tendency to combine puzzling personnel decisions with a lack of business savvy. The team must now eat the rest of Chris' guaranteed deal for the remainder of the season. Rather than recognizing that the organization threw him a bone, J.R. reacted to his brother's release with petulance, tweeting a photo from the movie "Casino" with the quote: "You know the sad thing about betrayal? It never comes from an enemy."
That Smith is a walking distraction would be easier to swallow if he were producing on the court, but this player bears no resemblance to the one who won the NBA's Sixth Man Award last year, who was equally indiscriminate in his shot selection but still managed to make one from time to time. This season, both his overall and three-point shooting percentage are suffering, while his player efficiency rating has nose-dived from a 17.6 to 9.9. Still, Smith's uncontrollable hubris leads him to promise to take more shots after throwing up 17 three-point attempts and sinking just five of them.
Even worse than Smith's ego and its effect on the Knicks' play had been the lack of any significant discipline or leadership by the coaches and management. Before Thursday's matchup against the Heat, Mike Woodson made some comments supposedly "blasting" Smith for the shoelace incidents, saying, "It's just got to stop. I keep saying this every time something pops up, but it's got to stop." "Something's gotta be done," he added, before promising to address it Thursday. Those words predictably rang hollow to a fan base that had seen its head coach command little to no respect from his players and who didn't seem to understand that it's actually his job to make sure something gets done. Then came the benching.
Thursday's game had a decidedly different feel from those past. As the Knicks tipped off against the Heat, Smith's continuous absence from the floor served as a reminder that actions have consequences, however delayed or minimal. In lieu of his constant shooting barrage, the Knicks scored 52 points in the paint, even without Chandler, and shot close to 54 percent from the floor. It was an important statement to make, but one that only applies as a short-term bandage to a long-term issue.
With J.R., as with the team's other underperformers, it all starts from the top, something of which Knicks (and Rangers) fans are all too aware after almost two decades of Jim Dolan's rule. As Grantland's netw3rk puts it, "Smith is just one splash of neon in the performance art installation that is Knicks futility," part of an owner-enabled culture that either breeds or brings in one loose-cannon player after another. The front office knew that in Smith, it was getting a player whose shots don't always fall and whose discretion is usually nonexistent, but still gave him three years and $18 million (and threw in $2 million more to babysit his brother in the D-Leagues). The Knicks are now attempting to save face by pretending to shop Smith's contract, but even that idea is half-baked, for who could ever learn to love an overpaid beast? As Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski notes, the empty trade talk is supposed to "scare J.R. Smith straight," which is kind of hard to do when (a) he's exhibited this behavior on every team he's ever played for, and (b) there's literally no market for him.
We'll probably have to deal with Smith until his contract is up, but the institutional problems will persist long after his name is no longer written in orange and blue. After a decade of dysfunction, the resilient yet weary Knicks fan base can handle two more years of J.R. It's the years beyond that make us sweat.