The Myth Of The J.R. Smith Improvement

Through eight games, the New York Knicks’ swingman, J.R. Smith, is playing at an All-Star level.

Knicks beat writer, Nate Taylor, of the New York Times, put together a piece on how and why Smith has improved.

There certainly is something to the fact Smith has improved; As I just stated above, Smith is playing like an All-Star, he did not play like one last year. He is playing more under control and the leadership/off court stuff can’t be quantified.

My main issue is the idea that J.R. has become a completely and entirely different player is taking it way too far.

Two lines from the Taylor story particularly bothered me:

1. “He (Smith) has not been a problem for Mike Woodson.”

Smith wasn’t a problem for Woodson last year; The Knicks’ head coach loved him. There were games where the twitter outrage for how much Woody played him was incredible.

It was particularly apparent in the Knicks 100-99 overtime win over the Bulls on Sunday afternoon on ABC (the Melo, I make awesome hero ball threes, game). People were killing Smith, who shot 6-22 overall and 2-11 from three point range, although he did come up with a couple big baskets in the fourth quarter and OT. He played 37 minutes despite the poor shooting numbers.

This brings us to the question of, if Smith was so bad last year, why did Woodson insist on playing him big minutes? It also leads into the other line from Taylor’s story that bothered me.

2. “Smith has helped the Knicks – mostly because he has not been the player he has been last year.”

I’m sorry, but this couldn’t be farther from the truth.

When you look at Smith’s on/off court stats from last year, New York was three points better offensively per 100 possessions, identical defensively, increased their three point shooting by 5.5% and turned the ball over less, when J.R. was playing.

The most impressive jump was in the three point shooting, because it wasn’t attributable to Smith, who struggled last year. When J.R. was on the court, the Knicks made 47% of their corner three pointers, up 12% from when he was off the court. Smith shot just 36% on corner threes.

Smith did a fantastic job last season of identifying and finding Steve Novak. When playing with J.R. (627 minutes), Novak’s shooting numbers went up across the board. He shot 50% from the field, compared to 41% and 49% from three compared to 40%. The biggest jump came on corner threes — without Smith, Novak shot 3-12 (25%); with Smith, Novak shot 31-54 (57%).

The trend that Smith isn’t all that different can be seen in other places, too. The entire argument of the growth of Smith comes back to the simple fact that he’s making shots. Smith is currently shooting 63% from three and just under 48% from the field, compared to 34% and 40%, last year. The best argument for Smith having changed is that he has cut down his three point attempts — per 36 minutes the former Nugget took 7.2 last year, down to just 3.3 this year.

When you dig in to the rest of Smith’s per 36 numbers, there also isn’t an eye popping difference. He is averaging almost the exact same amount of rebounds (5), assists (2) and steals (2).

If you prefer to look at numbers in percentages, Smith’s defensive rebound rate is up (16.8 from 15.2), but offensive is down (.9 from 3.4). His assist percentage (14.6 from 15.2) is slightly down, and steal percentage is basically the same (2.7 from 2.9).

Then there’s the discussion of the type of shots Smith is taking. J.R’s critics get peeved with his tendency to take mid-range step backs off the bounce. Last season, according to mySynergy Sports, Smith took 2.5 jumpers off the dribble per game between 17 feet and the three point line. In 2012-13 Smith is taking 4.1 shots per game in that same area. So, there has actually been an increase in inefficient shots being taken by Smith this season. He’s also shooting them at essentially the same exact percentage: right around 38%.

Those synergy numbers are from before the Grizzlies game

On the defensive end of the floor, I thought Smith’s effort was overlooked last season. No other way for me to put it, but he played his ass off this year.

According to 82games.com, when playing the two, Smith’s opponent’s PER was 13.2 and defensive rating, going by basketball-reference.com, is exactly the same at 100. Defense was not an issue.

The answer to the question of if J.R. Smith has improved this season is yes. It’s just not how, why and as significant as people want you to believe it to be.

Thanks to NBA.com, basketball-reference.com, mySynergy Sports and 82games.com for the statistics.