J.R. Smith has been an essential source of scoring for New York this season. (Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
With the end of the regular season fast approaching, we’re taking a closer look at each award race. Here, Rob Mahoney examines the race for Sixth Man Award.
Many of this year's award races are jammed with deserving candidates, perhaps none more so than the contest for Sixth Man of the Year -- that dubious honor going to the best regular reserve.
The distinction implicit in the award is admittedly quite arbitrary. Coming off the bench is hardly the demerit it once was, as coaches often assign a starting-caliber player to the bench to balance their rotation. Still, the basketball world sees fit to separate starter from reserve and glorify the player having the best season despite spending the first few minutes of every game in his warm-ups. Don't ask me why that matters in a post-Ginobili world; I don't make the award rules, I just cast my imaginary ballot.
And this year, I'm casting that ballot in favor of one Earl Joseph Smith III, that ridiculous and gutsy gunner known far better as J.R.
I see six first-tier options in addition to New York's Smith: the Clippers' Jamal Crawford, Golden State's Jarrett Jack, New Orleans' Ryan Anderson, Oklahoma City's Kevin Martin, San Antonio's Manu Ginobili and Utah's Gordon Hayward. Some are more productive than Smith, some more efficient, and one could argue that some play a bigger role. But Smith has found a relative sweet spot in terms of the function he serves with the Knicks and the productive way he goes about serving it, and in the process has proved to be this season's most essential sub.
Before continuing, a look at my complete ballot:
1. J.R. Smith, New York Knicks
2. Jarrett Jack, Golden State Warriors
3. Ryan Anderson, New Orleans Hornets
That achievement begins with Smith's contributions as a scorer (19.2 points per 36 minutes). He ranks as one of the league's top sources of extemporaneous, self-generated points. The iso game is something of a necessary evil in the NBA, as play action inevitably breaks down and primary options can be countered with double teams and traps. In those cases, it's necessary for a team to have players capable of pulling decent shots out of thin air -- a Smith specialty. Not only is he infinitely willing to hunt down and hoist up difficult shots with the clock winding down, but Smith also has amazing range, good handle and a creative flair. He can make something happen when the ball swings his way, and lately he's been particularly adamant about driving to the hoop whenever possible.
The recent focus on attacking the rim augments the remarkable work of one of the league's most impressive shooters. Smith, who attempts six three-pointers per 36 minutes, sinks 35.1 percent of his threes out of iso situations (a tough, tough look), 42.3 percent as a ball-handler tucking behind a high screen and 37.3 percent in spot-up cases, according to Synergy Sports. Some of Smith's jumpers, however, still come as a result of baffling decisions, as shot selection is and will always be among his greatest vices. He simply can't fully deny the magnetic allure of the pull-up jumper -- a limitation that, along with the fact that Smith creates so many shots, pares down his shooting efficiency.
But it's not as if the other subs in comparable roles (Crawford, Jack) have posted elite shooting marks this season, and Smith's low turnover rate (he turns the ball over on just nine percent of his possessions, a mark equivalent to that of a pure spot-up shooter) helps offset some of those missed shots. Ultimately, he's still a volume scorer -- but one the Knicks badly need and can be better managed on both ends than a player such as Crawford. Between the two, Smith is easily the more passable defender and is the better rebounder by a wide margin, while the playmaking category is more or less a wash. In the overall head-to-head comparison (which also features roughly equivalent scoring) with Crawford, I like Smith based on a few minute factors:
• Smith isn't anything resembling a plus defender, but he's improved enough to operate in most traditionally constructed lineups. Crawford, on the other hand, is routinely the worst defender on the floor and generally incapable of guarding most perimeter opponents. It takes a real effort to put Crawford into a defensive lineup that works, and that weighs heavily against him here.
• Although their roles are comparable, I -- oddly enough -- see Smith as the more agreeable offensive player, if only because he fits so well in New York's cache of three-point marksmen. Crawford has done well for the Clippers, but I'm not generally fond of the offense he creates as a second-unit ball-handler, a duty from which Smith is largely exempt. These are small nits to pick for a player generally helping his team, but such is inevitable with a race so tight.
I like what Jack has done with Golden State as well, but some aspects of his play can prove irritating for a team with a generally successful offense. The Warriors are at their best when Stephen Curry and David Lee are facilitating a sense of team-wide ball movement, and Jack is often a very clear obstruction to that ideal flow. He's a good player, and it's nice for Golden State to move Curry off the ball at times and allow Jack to operate from the top of the floor. But he also gets a bit tunnel-visioned as a creator and can actively hurt his team with his singular focus, or at the very least hinge its collective fate to his mid-range jumper and his narrow field of vision. He's a fine contributor and a genuine help in crunch time, but I ever so slightly prefer what Smith brings to his more focused role with the Knicks.
Anderson also intrigues me as a candidate, though in his case I gave a tiny advantage to Smith on the basis of his shot creation. Like it or not, that ability to manufacture offense is a hugely important skill, particularly when it's been such a boon for a top-three offensive team in the Knicks. Anderson has played a substantial role for New Orleans, but the fact that he's so reliant on Greivis Vasquez and swing passes to score (almost 72 percent of Anderson's field goals are assisted, compared to just 37 percent of Smith's makes) stands as a minor mark against him. He's a better rebounder (duh) but hardly so relative to his position, and Anderson is only a marginally better defender than Smith, if at all.
Anderson has had another amazingly efficient shooting season, but I keep coming back to the stakes of Smith's contributions. The comparison settles with this, in my eyes: Smith has been a genuine life preserver for one of the best offenses in the league, while Anderson has done good work as one of the better scorers on an average offensive team. These are odd points to compare, but I just don't see quite enough in Anderson's play to justify picking him over Smith.
Rounding out the rest of the field, in brief:
• Kevin Martin, Oklahoma City Thunder: Creating less than he used to (and less than Smith/Jack/Crawford), very poor defender, completely one-dimensional output.
• Manu Ginobili, San Antonio Spurs: Has played roughly half as many minutes as Smith, and even if we overlook his missed games, Ginobili just didn't play enough (23.4 minutes per game) relative to the rest of this field.