After yet another loss (the latest one to the Denver Nuggets), the now 3-12 Knicks are struggling, and there appears to be no clear end to all of the suffering in sight.
New York is sinking rather quickly, but there isn't a clear cut person to blame. The fact of the matter is that fingers can be pointed in any which direction. It's no one person's fault. Still, with that in mind, let's take this opportunity to examine the struggles of J.R. Smith, as it relates to the Knicks' sinking ship.
Perhaps the most glaring of players who haven't hit their mark just yet this season, Smith's impact (or lack there of, in fact) is becoming an elephant in the room for his team.
Entering the season, Smith had plenty of pressure on his shoulders with various question facing him in the year ahead. Would he be able to duplicate some of that same success that helped him win the NBA's Sixth Man of the Year award? Would he come into training camp and/or the regular season out of shape following his rehab from surgery? Will the swingman eventually get his head right, after a combination of off and on the court antics have resulted in a suspension of six games, dating back to last postseason?
So many questions can certainly prove to be a hinderance for any player. Still, it's undeniable that Smith has lost any trace of efficiency (not that shooting percentage was ever one of his strengths), and/or clutch genes he owned coming into the year.
But all of the aforementioned issues aside, there's one thing that hasn't been mentioned much when considering the causes of Smith's recent struggles: the presence of Andrea Bargnani.
Let me start by saying that I'm a supporter of Bargnani overall. He's effective most times, efficient some, and is able to provide the Knicks with a more consistent bonafide second scorer on a given night, though he never solves the team's need for more rebounds. Still, when all things are considered, Bargnani is a valuable asset, and not simply because of his contract.
But the question as to whether Smith can be just as effective with Bargnani in town still remains. As mentioned, the big man has developed (if for no reason other than simply by default) into sort of a secondary go-to-guy for the Knicks. Regardless of whether Smith was on the court or not (dating back to his suspension earlier this season), Bargnani has always been known for his scoring, so it's only beneficial for the Knicks to utilize him for such a skill.
In doing so, however, New York is taking the focus off of Smith a bit offensively. They're taking the ball out of his hands, quite literally speaking. What's more, though the Knicks have struggled a bit as of late with ball movement, such a crucial wrinkle in the team's offense remains a priority.
Thus, with making the extra pass standing tall as a key necessity, running isolations plays has taken a backseat. Only when the shots are not falling for other players has Carmelo Anthony had to literally take the team on his back and carry the scoring load like he had to at times last season. He's the team's star, but even the struggling Coach Mike Woodson recognizes that his team has other worthwhile offensive options as well. There's no need for Anthony to hog the ball.
There's no need for Anthony to do it, so clearly, there's no need for Smith to do it, either. Running less isolation plays and attempting to make that extra "hockey assist" at all times has resulted in Smith getting fewer and fewer looks. There are plenty of fans who arguably wouldn't complain about that, but it's still making the swingman less effective in the process.
Smith needs the ball to get things going and develop a rhythm offensively. Coach Woodson may still be trusting his veteran with plenty of playing time, but such minutes will prove to be useless (with regard to getting Smith going again) if he doesn't allow the offense to run through Smith more often.
Clearly, whether or not that's ultimately beneficial for the team is debatable. Still, that appears to be what he needs. Smith hasn't exactly been given the green light, but much of that (indirectly, perhaps) has to do with Bargnani being on the floor and the Knicks trusting him as a secondary option instead. In relying on the Italian Stallion a bit more, New York obviously isn't forced to run as many isolations plays. It's easier to get Bargnani better looks than Smith, mostly because such looks come within the flow of the offense, whereas getting good looks for Smith ultimately means slowing things down.
Thus, Smith is struggling. His inability to get things going has resulted in the Knicks' continued woes, simply because not being able to rely on him consistently has caused the team to change things up and not play the brand of basketball that proved to be successful for them last season.