NBA@2: JR Smith Wearing Out His Welcome?
That didn’t take long.
The job of an NBA head coach gets more complicated by the year, it seems. The X’s and O’s are still their primary responsibility, but more and more it seems that coaches have to be part camp counselor and part psychologist, as well. They have to know when to step in and intervene when one of their players is going astray, while also deciding when to let a situation run its course and see if the team benefits.
Few players in today’s NBA test a coach’s ability to juggle roles the way New York Knicks guard J.R. Smith tests. Smith has always been a fiery player who can score in bunches, but he has equally been a player prone to unprofessional decisions that test a team’s willingness to put up with the behavior to get the scoring.
Smith’s last NBA stop was in Denver, where he shared a contentious relationship with head coach George Karl. Karl didn’t like having to babysit, Smith didn’t like having his minutes depend upon his behavior. It took some brilliant incentive-based contract structuring by Mark Warkentien to get two to co-exist, and when Warkentien was let go and Smith’s contract expired the Nuggets didn’t even consider bringing Smith back.
Next up for Smith was a stint in China, where he wasted little time establishing his reputation in China. He took time away from his Chinese team early on, telling them he was getting treatment. What he was really doing was blowing a great deal of money in a very visible way on a Shanghai shopping spree with his family and friends. He also made unreasonable demands of his team, the Zhejiang Golden Bulls. He asked for outlandish fringe benefits, such as a villa in Shanghai, something the Chinese culture takes much less kindly than the American counterpart. It wasn’t long before China decided the best thing for their country was to remove J.R. Smith altogether, scoring or no scoring.
Smith soon returned to the NBA, joining the New York Knicks as a free agent signee. Everyone knew he would bring scoring, and he did just that in his very first game with the team. He returned to the US, donned a Knicks jersey, and immediately dropped 15 points on the Dallas Mavericks in a 104-97 Knicks win. The Knicks were +21 with Smith on the court that day, exciting Knicks fans to no end. Perhaps Smith would be a key ingredient as New York looked towards making some noise in postseason play.
Of course, there have been gaudy numbers night from Smith, who racked up 20 points, nine rebounds and five steals in a recent win over Cleveland, but there have also been more than a few 4-for-13, 3-for-11 and 2-for-10 nights. Now it seems the professionalism issue is about to rear its ugly head again, as well.
The Knicks were up by 17 at one point during last night’s game against the Indiana Pacers, and when the wheels started coming off the cart head coach Mike Woodson stuck with Smith instead of going to Landry Fields. Not being one to keep his composure under pressure, Smith wound up getting ejected after a run-in with Leandro Barbosa.
“I’ll sit down and talk to J.R. and tell him you got to be a little more professional,’’ Woodson said after the game. “Maybe I should’ve pulled him. I didn’t. But I’ll talk to him because that was unprofessional I think.’’
“It’s how you play with our emotions,” added Carmelo Anthony, who played with Smith in Denver. “You’ve got to control that.”
“It was a tug-of-war,” said Smith of the altercation. “The refs didn’t see it. They only saw the end of it. It happens. It’s just the frustration of the game. Bumping and the grinding, he was going at me, I was going at him. It was going on the whole game. Nobody really paid attention to it. I just got a little fed up with it.”
Welcome to life with J.R. Smith. There’s never been a question that he can help a team; when he’s on he’s a lethal scoring threat and great all-around player. But when he’s not on, watch out . . .you never know what’s going to happen.
It’s now up to the Knicks do decide whether or not Smith’s positives are worth his potential negatives.
If, before the 2011-12 NBA season started, you told Minnesota Timberwolves management that they would have 25 wins to their credit going into April, they would have happily taken it. After all, the team only won 17 games in 82 tries last season, so getting 25 wins in 55 tries this season represents a vast improvement.
The trouble is, between the start of the season and the start of April something very close to magical seemed to be going on in Minnesota, and expectations went from mere “improvement” to “making the playoffs.”
New head coach Rick Adelman certainly had no inkling that his team might be a playoff team coming into the season. He had every intention of playing the young guys lots of minutes and doing more player development than anything else. Decisions needed to be made about which players would be around long-term and which could be let go in favor of other moves.
When the team started winning games, even getting into the playoff picture after a 12-8 stretch, Adelman was forced to change things up a bit . . .coaching to win instead of coaching to build.
Unfortunately, the fates had something else in mind. The team had just polished off the Los Angeles Clippers and Portland Trail Blazers when Ricky Rubio suffered a season-ending injury against the Los Angeles Lakers. From there it was all downhill. The Timberwolves have won just three of their ten games since Rubio went down and are now all but out of the playoff picture.
Injuries to JJ Barea, Michael Beasley and Nikola Pekovic, in particular, also played a role in Minnesota’s demise, as did Darko Milicic’s falling out of favor and Wesley Johnson’s ongoing struggles.
Still, there are plenty of reasons for Timberwolves fans to maintain a spirit of optimism as this crazy lockout-shortened season enters its final month.
First and foremost, Rubio showed he is the real deal. He will make a full recovery and be ready to push his team right back into the playoff discussion next season.
Second, Kevin Love has reached new heights this season, and he continues to get better. There is every reason to believe that he and Rubio will be the driving force behind a new era of excellence in Minnesota.
Next up, Nikola Pekovic has emerged as one of the better young centers in the NBA. It took some time to adapt his game to the NBA, but this season he’s averaging 15.8 points and 9.0 rebounds as a starter and has gotten progressively better as the season moved along. The Pekovic/Love front line is going to be formidable for years to come.
Finally, rookie Derrick Williams is proving his worth as the second overall pick in last summer’s NBA draft. Scoring and rebounding come easily to Williams, though turnovers sometimes plague him and his free throw shooting needs some work. Still, he’s had a solid rookie campaign and will only get better.
The second half of the 2011-12 NBA season has been a bit of a downer for Timberwolves fans, who actually had a glimmer of hope that their team might return to the playoffs this season. That dream may be over, but there are plenty of good days ahead for the Timberwolves . . .and they aren’t that far down the road.
Daryl Morey Talks Rockets
While injuries and issues are conspiring to keep the Timberwolves out of the playoffs, the Houston Rockets continue to do their best Rocky Balboa impression as they overcome ridiculous odds to cling to the Western Conference’s eighth playoff seed. They’ve been without their starting backcourt for weeks, yet continue to rely on a rookie and two oft-overlooked role players to keep them in the hunt. Like Sylvester Stallone’s iconic character, the Rockets go into every game not know they’re supposed to lose, and often overcoming big deficits to come out on top. They recently overcame a 17-point deficit to beat the Los Angeles Lakers, fought back from an 11-point fourth quarter deficit to beat the Oklahoma City Thunder, and even came back from 15 down to beat the Chicago Bulls (granted, without Derrick Rose) over the weekend.
“We always get those wins like that,” Rockets GM Daryl Morey tells Rockets.com. “We had just lost to the Cleveland before beating the Thunder, then we lost that one to Indiana at home Sunday and I felt like that game could just have easily swung the season in a bad direction, but the reality is all these games can swing the season. I’m sort of looking at it like, when we had 15 games to go we had to win a 15-game series 8-7. We’re up 2-1 now, so if we can win a few of these on the road we’ll be in better shape. It’s looking like it’s going to come down to us and Utah but it could change.”
The primary reason why the Rockets have been so resilient, especially in light of long-term injuries to both Kevin Martin and Kyle Lowry, is the inspired play of Courtey Lee and Goran Dragic. Dragic has been nothing short of phenomenal, almost like a Linsanity West, though without the New York media frenzy to take notice and inspire T-shirts and catch slogans. Dragic had 21 points, five assists and four steals in the win over Chicago, staged a one-man comeback party in the win over the Lakers, and is averaging 17.6 points, 8.7 assists and even 3.5 rebounds per game as a starter this season.
“He’s great,” says Morey. “He’s been unbelievable. Obviously, we liked him when we acquired him. As I’ve said before: We get a lot of bad luck and bad news often with injuries and different situations in the league, so it’s always good to get some positive news like Goran really playing great.”
It’s not just Dragic, though. Lee is averaging 14.3 points per game starting in place of Martin, rookie Chandler Parsons has improved dramatically over the course of the season, averaging 12.9 points and shooting 53% from the field in March, and all three of these underrated players have made the Rockets’ defense one of the toughest in the league to penetrate.
“I think Goran, Courtney, Chase (Budinger), Chandler – I mean our whole set of 1s, 2s and 3s, we really felt like that was the strength and the depth of our team and it’s showing true,” says Morey. “But feeling that way and having them actually do it is a totally different thing. I mean, Chase probably won that game for us yesterday and we’ve had games where Courtney has won it, Chandler has won it, Goran has won it – so it’s been pretty exciting. And Kevin McHale doesn’t get nearly enough credit for the way he’s guided this team through what’s been a very unique season from day one.”
The Rockets are hopeful that both Martin and Lowry will be back in the lineup soon, but until then they are in great hands with the second unit playing first. The one knock on Houston, however, continues to be their lack of a star player to go to in crunch time. Morey, however, doesn’t see that as a major obstacle for the Rockets.
“I think the reality is that no one is any good at crunch time. I think if you’ve got a guy who can create his own shot then you’re better off than not. I think the biggest misnomer people have … I’ve seen a lot of things like, ‘You should run a play. You should just do your normal things.’ Well, the reason why teams go with a particular isolation play, even though that often has a low efficiency because it’s just hard to score for anybody, I don’t care how good you are, is not because teams think that’s optimal for scoring, it’s because it’s optimal for controlling the amount of time the other team has after the play. If you’re just running a set and a team jumps it or tries to disrupt it, it can really change the timing of when your shot goes off and it’s a massive, massive difference how many ticks are left when the other team gets the ball. So a lot of what people want to criticize coaches for which is ‘Don’t they know that guy is bad in isolation; don’t they know this?’ – it’s really because they’re not, in my opinion, thinking about the big picture which is controlling the clock the other way in terms of when your opponent gets the ball back. Even three seconds with an advance of the ball is a huge difference versus only having one second. The efficiency drop based on you controlling the clock the other way is a massive difference.”
The Rockets still have their work cut out for them in working to secure the West’s final playoff spot. They are in Los Angeles to play the Lakers on Friday, then take on the ever-improving Sacramento Kings, and will host Utah, play a home-and-home with Denver, visit the defending champion Dallas Mavericks and pay a call on the defending Eastern Conference champion Miami HEAT before the dust settles on April. If the Rockets make the playoffs they will have overcome ridiculous odds to do so.
But then, what else is new? Like the Italian Stallion, the Rockets never seem to know when they’re over-matched, and very often find ways to win when defeat seems nearly certain. The next accomplishment, then, would be to capture the NBA championship with this rag-tag group.
Perhaps it’s best to take one step at a time.
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