Tag Archives: J.R. Smith

Men Six Through Ten

Yesterday J.R. Smith was selected and elected, beginning a twelve-month reign as the NBA’s Sixth Man Of The Year. Smith had one of the best seasons of his career scoring oodles of points for the Knicks, forgoing his trademark one-on-three jumpshots for large stretches of the season, getting extremely flirtatious with hid old nemesis, consistency, and even taking the time to play passable defense. But this tweet from the NBA.com stats department really sums up his case:

Yay Points! #KiaSixth!

The NBA’s post-season awards have become an incredibly flat affair with all the intrigue of a Sesame Street episode. Each award is voted on by a huge slate of media members, but still each has developed a predictable path for being won. The cobblestone route to winning the Sixth Man Award is simply coming off the bench and scoring points. But what frustrates and confuses me isn’t that Smith is this year’s winner. I’m long past the point where these arbitrary, whack-a-mole celebrations of the regular season can rise much ire. I’m also not going to waste time arguing that these awards are stupid and don’t reflect the reality of what happened all season long. You can read those articles at fifteen different blogs today. What bothers me is the incredibly narrow idea of what a sixth man is, and that this particularly narrow viewpoint extends well beyond the NBA post-season awards, pervading the actual construction of actual basketball teams.

Over the past half-decade offensive complexity seems to have grown by leaps and bounds. More versatile players fill more versatile systems. Analytics and critical thinking have bred both creativity and a focus on efficiency. Teams have by-and-large abandoned the pound-the-ball, isolations strategies that carried offenses in the late 90s and early 00s. But these last vestiges of go-it-alone, chest-thumping offensive bravado still seem to hang on in two places – close games and bench rotations. The perceived value of inefficient volume scorers has depreciated incredibly but a disturbing number of front offices still seem drawn to them when there is an uneven balance of offensive ability on the roster.

That the first player off the bench needs to be someone with individual scoring chops strikes me as ridiculous on several levels. First of all, if that need for individual offense was great enough to make it first priority for a substitution, it would seem to indicate some serious problems with both the talent and arrangement of the starting lineup. Second, there are a handful of notable exceptions, but bench units rarely exist as a distinct and separate entity. They are almost always an interweaving of starters and backups. If a team’s offensive system is built on the symphonic melodies of various talents and skill sets, why abandon that system completely when the parts are scattered or arranged differently? Shouldn’t bench units be a reflection of the starting lineup, covering holes when possible, but ultimately shaped by the team’s over-arching offensive and defensive goals? Obviously the Spurs offense can’t run quite the same without Tony Parker in the game, but you’ll notice that they’ve had quite a bit of success the past few seasons without employing Earl Boykins to go out and hoist shots whenever Parker needs a breather.

I’m a process guy. I like systems. I like thoughtful and all-encompassing structures. And I find it almost offensive that a team would carefully construct a plan of attack with the knowledge that it only works in certain situations, and will be largely abandoned whenever one of their five chosen starters needs to catch his breath. This is not entirely the case with the Knicks and J.R. Smith this season. But it is largely the case with teams that have retained the services of Corey Maggette over the past few years. Or Nate Robinson. Or Jamal Crawford. Or Marcus Thornton. Or Aaron Brooks. Or Ben Gordon. Or Von Wafer. Or Leandro Barbosa. I’m not arguing against a change-of-pace. I’m arguing against a compromise of values.

Setting aside the issue of actual skill sets, even enumerating and identifying a sixth man seems oddly anachronistic. The group of players that begins each game is the starting five, and should they ever be separated and numerically labelled it is by position not talent. But when we stretch to 5 + 1, the additional number becomes a label of talent, grouping that player with the starting five and at the same time separating them from their off-the-bench peers. At it’s core, it seems like the whole idea of sixth man is carving out something separate; separate from a system, separate from teammates, separate from everything that we know about successful basketball. Looking at someone as a sixth man inherently depresses the importance of the five who come before and and the six who come after.

This is not the first time I’ve waged a written battle against straw soldiers I construct myself, stand-ins for conventional wisdom. Sixth men may not actually exist in the way I’m describing them. Perhaps League Pass has fed me too much commentary from local broadcast teams, opinions that I’m carrying from the broadcast and ascribing to NBA front offices. But then I look again at the career of Corey Maggette and am left without a satisfying explanation, other than the one I’ve laid out here. The fact is that we keep using the phrase sixth man and attaching it to basketball players. Language shapes reality. Giving a name to this idea and using it repeatedly, perpetuates it’s existence. Awards are awards and I won’t begrudge anyone from receiving recognition that solid play deserves. But I would love more attention on basketball as a communal artform. When it comes to recognizing off-the-bench contributions, I’d prefer to celebrate the complimentary and collaborative affairs, the interplay of talent and skill among multiple players.

When There’s Nothing Left to Burn

At this point, there is precious little anyone can detract from the Denver Nuggets.  With every game, the traces of Carmelo Anthony’s vice grip on the organization become harder to identify. There is no time for what was in Denver’s fast-paced attack, only what is. If you stop to think, you’re already trailing behind.

Barring disaster in these last few games, the Nuggets should enter the playoffs with supreme confidence for what they’ve been able to accomplish and create since the trade deadline. But something that has been overlooked amid the team’s success is the fact that the players acquired in the midseason trade — almost all impact players — are new to this. Wilson Chandler, Danilo Gallinari, and Timofey Mozgov have no prior playoff experience. Raymond Felton, the wily veteran of the bunch, has never won a playoff game. When considering that Anthony has made the playoffs in every season he’s played, and that trade-mate Chauncey Billups — counting the Knicks’ latest berth — has a decade’s worth of consecutive playoff appearances, it’s obvious that the Nuggets weren’t banking on such immediate success. But success is pretty much the only thing the Nuggets have generated since the end of February, and the young ones ought to be ready if that success is to continue.

If Chandler, Gallinari, and Felton — all important cogs in the Nuggets offense — fold under the pressure, the team still has veteran leaders to compete, and more importantly, win. Alas, the uncertainty regarding Denver’s new players leaves the door slightly ajar, allowing that stupid back-climbing monkey to return:

Denver doesn’t have an elite isolation scorer! What do they do when they have no options left to exhaust?

…Which seems a little silly, considering how deep the Nuggets’ roster is. The team has nine players legitimately capable of scoring 20+ points on any given night. The odds of every single one of them struggling is far-fetched, but it happens. Great offenses collapse. And in that hypothetical Game 5 situation — with the series tied up, and the game deadlocked — do the Nuggets have someone who can be a game-changer on offense when nothing is going right?

How about J.R. Smith?

Under normal circumstances, this would be a stupefying proposition. But the Nuggets aren’t a normal team.  With so many options and so many willing playmakers, Denver doesn’t need to rely on any one scorer, which they’ve obviously proven through the last few months. But concerns are understandable given the nature of the playoffs. So if the Nuggets are able to execute their offensive for most of a playoff series, would it be reasonable to say that this iso-scorer would only be necessary for 1 out of every 3 games? Also, isn’t Smith the walking definition of a 1 out of every 3 games player?

Smith’s consistency issues are well documented, but so are his unhinged scoring onslaughts. At his best, he is clearly the team’s best offensive player. He’ll make the highlight reels with impossible dunks and three-point barrages, but his ability as a creator is perhaps the most intriguing element to his game. Some of Smith’s most brilliant plays have come from him running the pick and roll. The bounce pass is a criminally underrated facet of Smith’s game, and one of Denver’s deadliest weapons when Smith is in the right frame of mind.

At his best, Smith is a savant, skillfully creating what can only be construed as art, maintaining a balance between his own combustibility and the flow of the game. At his worst, Smith finds himself completely out of tune, either from extraneous issues, a lack of consistent playing time, or both. Smith’s predilection as a player is to shoot. It’s innate, and there’s not much that anyone can do about that. The difference between good and bad J.R. Smith is judgment. When the variables are all in place for Smith’s wacky algorithm, elements of his game open up. And it’s a beautiful thing.

Probably the thing you admire about him is his explosiveness and his athleticism as an offensive player. From the standpoint of one-on-one skills and individual skills, he’s a top-20 player in basketball.
But the ability to fit that into the team and fit that into winning basketball has been our challenge. I think J.R., this year, has probably had his best year as far as being a good teammate and committed to the team first. It’s going to be exciting.

George Karl: Nuggets coach on J.R. Smith, chemistry and go-to guys | Denver Post

George Karl’s relationship with Smith over the years has been tumultuous. With the new players capable of playing the wing position, Karl has more reasons than ever to play Smith as little as possible. But Karl is aware of Smith’s talent, and that’s the problem. You don’t let a genius suffer idly in the corner. You embrace him and his quirks as much as humanly possible. And while Smith can’t be happy with a few of Karl’s punishments this season, he should be grateful he wasn’t axed from the rotation entirely. Karl has tinkered with Smith’s minutes throughout the year, but maintaining a firm 25-30 minute allotment should prove to be rewarding with the playoffs only days away.

In last week’s game against the Dallas Mavericks, Smith’s potential as Denver’s closer was never clearer. Smith scored 13 points in the fourth quarter — seven of which game in the game’s last three minutes, including a three-point dagger with 23 seconds left in the game — making five of his six shots in the period. In a close game with clear playoff seeding implications, Smith was their best player down the stretch. Was it a taste of what’s to come?

Maybe what’s more impressive is Smith’s completely pedestrian performance in the two losses to the Oklahoma City Thunder, with one game before and one after the Mavs game. Momentum doesn’t appear to have much sway in the face of Smith’s lack of short-term memory. Every game is a blank slate with an equal chance of Smith setting himself on fire. In the playoffs, there are seemingly insurmountable highs and traumatizing lows. J.R. Smith knows the feeling too well. This team will have to find a balance between its veterans and its patches of inexperience in the face of stiffening competition. Smith has the chance to find the Nuggets’ absolute center by bringing back what it had lost; by finally getting that monkey off their backs.