Who is J. R. Smith?
The question has been hanging over J.R. Smith's career since he was drafted 18th in the 2004 NBA Draft by the New Orleans Hornets. Nine years later, it is still being asked. And Smith's long-term future, the role the New York Knicks will play in it, and perhaps Carmelo Anthony's best shot at an NBA title will all be defined by how Smith answers these questions over the next few weeks.
And it is quintessential Smith that within the past month, two main conversations about him have raged, consecutively and diametrically opposed: Can the Knicks afford to keep J.R. Smith? And will J.R. Smith ever get his shot back?
"Really, I did it to myself," Smith said in front of his locker following the Knicks' 102-95 loss to the Pacers in Game 1 at Madison Square Garden Sunday, uttering his diagnosis in his calm, understated voice. For all his vitality and massive swings in performance on the court, it is always surprising that when he gives interviews, he provides the sensation that he's just awakened from a nap. "Fighting through a mental game of trying to get to the basket. Still relying on my jumper too much. Missed shots. I've got to keep pushing the ball, instead of walking that up. I'm a big piece of that puzzle."
It was an astonishingly accurate self-diagnosis for Smith, a player often falsely accused of lacking self-awareness. And it wasn't just true in a Game 1 sense; his statement presented precisely where Smith and the Knicks are now.
Let's review how we got here.
After seven exasperating years in New Orleans and Denver, showing flashes, always flashes, of the player many thought he would be when he starred for St. Benedict's in Newark, NJ, Smith signed in China during the NBA lockout. When play resumed, the Knicks needed scoring, and signed Smith right in the middle of Linsanity.
Smith's reputation of being only a shooter was confounded by the work he did for coach Mike Woodson. He actually finished with his lowest true shooting percentage since his rookie year last season, his shot selection a poor combination of contested jumpers and threes, often taken early in the shot clock.
But to define Smith by his shooting alone would be to miss what kind of player he'd become for Woodson. His usage rate was down, indicative of a Smith more comfortable sharing the ball, while his assist percentage went up. He rebounded the ball at better than his career norms, turned the ball over less than 10 percent of the time, and often played inspired defense.
And let's not forget: J.R. Smith is, above all, fun to watch. He's the most enjoyable, delightful visual Knick. Carmelo Anthony is a kind of Bernard King, brutishly posting points on bullying moves to the basket or smoothly rising and sinking mid-range jumpers.
But Smith does things on the court no one expects, that no observer has inventoried into the range of possible until seeing Smith do it. He manages to get shots off from absurd angles, over, under and through draped defenders. I've seen him, on multiple occasions, get to the basket, make a full 360-degree turn in the air, and find an open three-point shooter.
The tantalizing Smith-as-superstar was closer than ever. He was, in essence, just good shot selection and driving to the hoop consistently away from becoming that elite player every scout who saw him at St. Benedict's thought he could be. But entering his ninth season, there was less reason than ever to expect him to change his ways and become a consistent basket attacker.
Still, last summer, there was actually a debate over whether the Knicks should re-sign Smith, a free agent, or fellow free agent Landry Fields. Yes, Landry Fields. I think the debate really came down to certainty, and how comfortable people are with it (and by contrast, how upset they are with the inverse of certainty that is J.R. Smith).
Fields was coming off of a season where he shot less than 26 percent from three point range, under 60 percent from the free throw line and turned the ball over on 15.1 percent of his possessions. He seldom scored after the first quarter. But he was consistent; you knew he was going to miss his threes and disappear offensively. He was a given.
Fortunately for the Knicks, the Raptors signed Fields to a massive three-year deal in a comical attempt to lure Steve Nash to Toronto. Smith re-signed in New York for one year and $2.8 million. He resumed his role as rotation player and occasional high scorer. And through 62 games, he was utterly the same player this season that he was last year: A solid defender, rebounder and passer, with terrible shot selection. Valuable, but limited by his own decisions.
Meanwhile the Knicks, who began the season on fire thanks to an unsustainably high percentage of made threes from people including Ronnie Brewer, had settled into the middling playoff team around Carmelo Anthony many expected them to be. A contender to win a series in April? Sure. A team who could challenge the Miami Heat? Laughable. Not with one scorer, no matter how great Anthony was.
And then it happened. Smith began to attack the basket. And everything changed.
To put in perspective how different this Smith was, consider that he's now played 618 regular season games in the N.B.A., and has been in the league since November 2004. Of the 17 games when he's attempted the most free throws in any contest, nine of them have come since March 14, 2013.
He's been a fundamentally different player, combining perimeter shots far more open due to defenses needing to account for his drives with higher-percentage forays to the basket. He got to the free throw line, where he is deadly. He shot better than 47 percent from the field over the final 20 games, up from just over 40 in his first 62.
And the Knicks were transformed, too. Anthony had his best month as a Knick in April, and won a scoring title. The team finished 18-2. Three point shooters were getting looks they hadn't even been getting in November, when they shot so well. The Knicks easily claimed the two seed. A challenge of Miami didn't feel nearly so far-fetched. And then the Knicks went out and won the first three games over the Boston Celtics, easily.
But there were some warning signs, even before Smith's gratuitous elbow to Jason Terry's face ended his Game 3 early and cost him a suspension for Game 4. Smith took seven threes in Game 1, and attempted a single shot from the free throw line. That didn't change much in Games 2 or 3. And when he returned in Game 5, he went out and missed his first ten shots.
To listen to Smith after that Game 5, a loss to the Celtics that pushed the Knicks' first-round series to Game 6, was to hear a player entirely aware of his role in the loss. And unlike many players who struggled, he didn't intend to shrink from the moment.
"I'm a streaky shooter, but I bury one or two, I can get in my rhythm," a somber Smith told reporters at his locker after the Game 5 loss Wednesday night. "And that's the way my teammates want me to play."
Clearly, that was true of his coach, too. Woodson kept Smith in the game through his struggles, and no reporter even asked him whether he considered taking Smith out. The reality of this Knicks team is that without Smith, they are the middling team they looked like for much of the 2012-13 season. Smith is that second star Anthony needs, and a perfect complement to his game -- but only the Smith who emerged late in the season.
Smith played somewhat better in the Game 6 vanquishing of the Celtics, but his stats were indistinguishable from his early-season performance: 38.5 percent overall shooting, mostly long jumpers, just two free throw attempts.
So in Sunday's Game 1 loss to the Pacers, even though he shot 4-for-15 in 33 minutes, the Smith the Knicks need finally began to emerge in the second half, even more in the fourth quarter. He began to probe the Indiana defense in the third, challenging Roy Hibbert and the other Pacers in an attempt to find the basket. He missed a few, and shot 1-for-10 through three quarters, but also collected five free throw attempts in the quarter. He'd taken that many free throws in a game just once in the playoffs.
In the fourth quarter, Smith found a rhythm missing since last month, when the Knicks were steamrolling the opposition and anything seemed possible, thanks to Smith. He scored 11 points, made three of five field goals, took another five free throw attempts. Not coincidentally, that opened up the lane for Anthony as well, who scored 15 in the period. The Knicks had dug themselves too big a hole to overcome Indiana's typical defense and uncharacteristically strong shooting. But they also seemed to find the team that had made home court advantage over the Pacers possible, just as it slipped away Sunday afternoon.
Smith will be a free agent following the season. The Knicks, who hold Smith's Early Bird Rights, can offer him a maximum of roughly four years, $24 million. The Smith of most of the past two seasons, poor shot selection and all, is probably worth that much to the Knicks, especially with the team over the salary cap and therefore limited in who else they can sign in Smith's place.
But if he is the piece that allows Anthony to maximize his scoring and the Knicks to contend, he's obviously worth far more. And another team, one unfettered by the salary cap, can bring in Smith as a centerpiece. For all of his experience, he's just 27 years old. But can any team bet a massive long-term contract on 20 games?
And the very thing that seems to infuriate so many -- that J.R. Smith believes in himself, no matter how much he struggles at times -- was evident as he answered questions about what he thinks he can do for the Knicks now.
"It doesn't affect my confidence at all," Smith said after Game 6. "'Cause if I miss 20 in a row, I'm still gonna take 21 and 22. I'm not worried about it. I just have to go out there and begin attacking the basket."
He's begun to do that, nine years after he arrived in the league. And now we'll get to find out just what that's worth to the Knicks this season, the NBA's other teams this summer, and to J.R. Smith's career as a whole.