Moke Hamilton, NBA AnalystWhile Carmelo Anthony, Raymond Felton and Amar’e Stoudemire were leading their troops to a 102-92 win that may signal a turning point in their season, Metta World Peace was in street clothes, but even he was closer to playing than J.R. Smith.
For the entire duration of the game, and for the first time in his career as a Knick, Smith was benched by Mike Woodson in a meaningful game.
Before, during and after one of their biggest victories of their season, Woodson declined to comment on Smith, but after the game, the NBA’s reigning Sixth Man of the Year had plenty to say, including that he arrived to Madison Square Garden on Thursday night, fully expecting to play.
“I expected to do the same thing I always do,” Smith said. “I did my same routine and it didn’t happen.”
As for what that means for Smith’s future as a Knick after surfacing in trade rumors earlier this week, he is unsure.
“Honestly, I don’t even know at this point,” he said, when asked if he believes his future is still in New York. “At one point, I was for sure, and now it’s rocking the boat. But it is what it is.
“It’s the nature of the business.”
So, at least for one night, Smith lost his spot in the rotation and confidence on his future is in New York. He lost those shortly after he lost $50,000 as a result of an NBA-levied fine for “recurring instances of unsportsmanlike conduct.” On Thursday, though, he may have lost something more valuable than all of those things—the support of his head coach.
Parked in the last seat on the bench, the one furthest from Woodson — it was where Smith belonged. And if reports that surfaced on Wednesday are true, the Knicks are trying their best to ensure that Smith takes his class clown even further than that.
But the most disturbing thing about Smith is how far he has regressed from last season. His erratic play has been a touchy subject for Knicks fans all season long. Despite his 34.8 percent connection-rate from the field and his paltry 11.3 point per game averages this season, Woodson has shown incredible loyalty to Smith, giving him the ball in important situations and not making Smith’s green light on the offensive end become amber. It has been curious since Smith’s defensive focus has waned noticeably.
Apparently, though, even Woodson has a breaking point. After word got around that Smith untied Shawn Marion’s sneaker during the team’s 92-80 win at the Dallas Mavericks on January 5, Woodson addressed the situation before the Knicks took on the Detroit Pistons at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday night.
Before the game, Woodson correctly pointed out that Smith’s focus needs to be on the court and on helping the Knicks turn their season around. Smith responded by attempting to pull the same stunt again—pun intended.
Though he did not commit the act—Smith called it a “joke gone bad” on Thursday night—he was not left laughing once the league levied their punishment and certainly not once Woodson extracted his revenge.
Away and isolated from his team for most of the night, Smith did not participate in huddles during the game and sat with his shoulders slouched for the balance of the game’s second half. He certainly appeared to miss being out on the floor with his teammates, but by the looks of it, the feeling was not mutual.
Raymon Felton’s 14 assists were a season-high and Amar’e Stoudemire’s 14-point, 11-rebound double-double was his first since April 2012. With Anthony’s efficient 29 points, eight rebounds and five assists—and without Smith—the Knicks did just fine and if that does not get J.R.’s attention, nothing will.
One other thing that obviously has not gotten his attention is the simple fact that positive play and effort are not requests that Knicks fans make on their heroes—they are mandates.
And if there is one miscalculation Smith has made during his tenure as a Knick, it is this: Knicks fans do not care whether he spends his Saturday nights in the city’s hot spots or his Sunday mornings in church. Knicks fans always have and always will care about the effort and quality of the on-court product.
In Smith’s case, that has been subpar, to say the least.
Since arriving in New York back in February 2011, Smith, like Latrell Sprewell once upon a time, joined the team with a reputation of being a knucklehead. Upon his signing with the club, reports surfaced that Smith, while playing professionally in China during the 2011 NBA Lockout, was fined more than $1 million by the Zhejiang Golden Bulls for various transgressions—allegations he denied.
Between then and now, Smith has simply allowed the negatives—his criticism of Jeremy Lin’s contract, his playoff suspension and meltdown following his elbow to Jason Terry, his drug suspension and his overall questionable shot selection—outshine his positives.
Yes, there have been positives, but his latest transgression just goes to show that the next lapse in judgment by Smith is always just around the corner. That type of immature, volatile personality is a dangerous one to depend on.
What’s more, Smith has failed to comprehend one other universal truth: when things are not going well, you do not act out and you do not have fun, at least not publicly. With a city that eats, sleeps and breathes basketball, the fan base suffers pain with each and every loss — as crazy as it may sound. As the team’s second offensive option, Knicks fans do not want to see or hear Smith having fun, because losing should not be fun.
When you find yourself in the “dark place” that Anthony spoke about recently, you sit down, shut up, get serious and at least pretend that your number one priority is figuring out what has gone wrong. Smith has failed to do that, or, at least, he has failed to give the impression that he is focused when he is on the floor. That is unacceptable.
With the Knicks entering Tuesday’s game against the Pistons at 11-22 and Smith shooting a career-low from the field, there simply should have been no time for joking and no time for clowning around. Over the course of this season, no player in the Knick locker room has appeared to take the losing harder than him, but one could easily argue that no player has contributed as much to it, especially in the wake of Smith’s mind-numbing three-point attempt at the end of the team’s lone loss in the State of Texas at the Houston Rockets on January 3.
Say what you want about Andrea Bargnani’s similarly stupid shot selection back on December 18 in Milwaukee, but at least the Knicks won that game.
If you are Smith, if you value your place on this team and if you truly want to put the transgressions behind, you would quit the clown act, focus on your game and find a way to once again be a meaningful contributor.
You would spend a little more time with Amar’e Stoudemire — the epitome of a proud professional.
You would mimic the Heat’s Ray Allen, being the first in the gym and meticulously and redundantly working on your craft.
And you certainly would have gone on the record with the bright lights and TV cameras rolling and offered some sort of sincere apology for being a knucklehead instead of hiding behind an empty 140-character tweet claiming to be sorry for letting fans down.
Instead, Smith spent most of his night pouting and sulking. Without him, the Knicks and Madison Square Garden did the opposite.
With Toure’ Murry and especially Tim Hardaway each showing that they can be meaningful contributors on a winning team, the Knicks ran the HEAT off of their home floor the same way Woodson—Smith’s biggest supporter—probably ran him out of the locker room before the game.
And while he was sitting there seeing Stoudemire turn back the clock and Anthony set the tone for his team on both ends of the floor, and while he saw his team get high-percentage shots and look more like the 54-win team of last year than the abysmal unit they resembled over the first three months of this season, Woodson, for the first time, probably thought what most Knicks fans have been thinking for a while.
Could the team possibly be better off without Smith?
On Thursday night, against the two-time defending NBA Champions, they were.
More than the league-imposed fine, more than the ire of his head coach and even more than the embarrassment of another transgression, for Smith, that is a scary question.
At this point, it is up to him—with a renewed focus and dedication to becoming a professional—to ensure that question is answered in the negative.
As he sat next to World Peace, watching his team rock the Garden without him, Smith was so close to the action, so close to the passion. But in the end, he was something even worse than being temporarily exiled.
He was expendable.
Moke Hamilton is the NBA Analyst for SNY.tv and, along with Lead Writer Harris Decker, hosts the Knicks Blog Podcast each and every Wednesday. Follow him on Twitter: @MokeHamilton