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J.R. Smith’s Return to Respectability

After his suspension J.R. Smith has started to earn some respect back both on and off the floor, but for how long?

Tommy Beer

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There hasn’t been much for Knicks fans to cheer about this season. Currently riding another three-game losing streak, New York has slid an embarrassing 11 games under .500.

Carmelo Anthony is playing at an incredibly high level on the offensive end, but other than Anthony’s exploits, there are been very few positives.

And over the first few months of the season, one of the biggest net negatives was the shockingly terrible play of J.R. Smith.

This was particularly surprising considering just nine months ago, as the Knicks were steamrolling towards their 54th win and their first Atlantic Division crown in nearly 20 years, Smith was putting the finishing touches on the best season of his career.

Smith had played well over the first half of last season, but stepped his game up to a previously unprecedented level after the All-Star Break.

Smith was particularly efficient, the result of a relentless aggressiveness attacking the basket, over a 10 game stretch last March. Smith attempted 89 free-throws during those 10 games, which tied Kevin Durant for most in the NBA over that time span. In March of 2013, Smith was one of just five NBA players who knocked down at least 20 three-pointers as well as 80 free throws. The other four members of that exclusive club: LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, James Harden and Kevin Durant.

Then, over the final six weeks of the 2012-13 regular season, Smith somehow managed to play even better. From March 20th through April 12th, a span of 14 games, Smith averaged 24.4 ppg and 6.4 rebounds, while shooting a scorching 51% from the floor. The Knicks won 13 of those 14 games. His performance down the homestretch of the season helped him secure the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year Award. He finished the season as one of just six NBA players to average at least 17 points, five rebounds and 1.3 steals (Russell Westbrook, LeBron James, Rudy Gay, Kobe Bryant, and Kevin Durant were the other five).

Then, just as quickly as Smith’s stock skyrocketed, it bottomed out. The 2013 postseason began with such high hopes for the Knicks and their surging shooting guard. However, the year came to a bitter and abrupt end for both the player and the team. Just how historically awful was Smith’s 2013 postseason? Well, he became just the second player in the last 50 years to appear in at least 10 playoff games and average over 30 minutes per game, yet shoot below 34% from the floor.

Nonetheless, the Knicks brass re-signed Smith to a lucrative three-year contract, obviously hoping they had inked a deal with the Smith that had sparked their terrific regular season run, as opposed to the J.R. Smith that flamed out in the playoffs.

However, shortly after he agreed to his new deal, it was announced Smith needed knee surgery. Later it the summer, word leaked that the league had suspended Smith for the first five games of the season for violating the NBA’s drug policy.

Upon finally returning to the Knicks lineup six games into the 2013-14 regular season, Smith has played worse than anybody could have imagined.

Through the first 29 games of the season, Smith was shooting just 34% from the floor and a below 63% from the free-throw stripe. He averaged just 11.3 points per game, despite attempting 12 field goals per contest.

As if his on-court performance wasn’t damaging enough, Smith was also generating drama and causing headaches off the floor, primarily related to shenanigans on Twitter or Instagram.

Everything came to a head about a month ago, when Smith was fined $50,000 for trying to undo the shoelaces of two opponents and was benched the following day against the Miami Heat on January 9th. Smith was then benched against Charlotte after reportedly exchanging words with Woodson and arriving late for a meeting.

Since that time, we’ve seen the rebirth of the Smith that starred for the Knicks in the second half of last season.

The difference in his numbers has been staggering. As noted above, he was averaging just 11.3 ppg on 34% shooting through January 8th. Since then, he is averaging over 17 points per game and shooting nearly 48% from the floor.

Smith’s willingness to settle for long-jumpers, as opposed to attacking the basket and getting to the free-throw stripe was arguably the primary reason for his drastic decrease in efficacy over the first three months of the season.

Since his return from the suspension, Smith has been far more aggressive. He attempted 44 free-throws over the Knicks first 29 games this season (pre-suspension). In the 13 games he’s played since then, he’s attempted 46 free-throws. Unsurprisingly, his three-point attempts have correspondingly decreased, while his three-point percentage has increased.

Smith has scored 223 points on just 170 FG attempts over his last 13 games. In contrast, he scored 182 pts on 195 FGA over his first 18 games this season.

In addition, not only is he far more efficient and effective individually when he consistently attacks the tin, he greatly improves his team’s overall offensive production. When he is slashing into the paint and drawing defenders, he consistently sets up his teammates for lay-ups, dunks or open jumpers.

Also clearly noticeable since his return from suspension has been Smith’s lack of in-game theatrics. There have been far fewer “air guitar” gestures and big dances after baskets. He’s simply running back down to the defensive end of the floor without drawing attention to himself. He has also been far less active on social media, tweeting far less frequently.

The most frustrating part of watching Smith play is that he clearly has the ability to be a special player in the league. The numbers speak for themselves. The fact that his production can fluctuate so wildly is what has driven his fans and his coaches crazy.

Unsurprisingly, there historically has been a direct correlation between the Knicks’ record and Smith’s struggles.

Smith is a true “X-factor” for New York. When he is efficient and effective on the offensive end, it is often a fantastic barometer for his team’s success. Consider this: Since signing with New York in 2012, the Knicks are an incredible 37-8 (.822 winning percentage) in the 45 games in which Smith has shot 50 percent or better from the field.

Can Smith carry this style of play into the final stretch of the season, or will he revert to his old habit of settling for ill-advised jumpers? Can he stay out of trouble off the court?

The Knicks have $18 million dollars invested in Smith, so they are clearly hoping Smith can answer these questions affirmatively. If he can, they have a chance of trading him (and his onerous contract) before the he reverts back to forcing contested fadeaways and sending out inappropriate tweets.

Tommy Beer is a Senior NBA Analyst and the Fantasy Sports Editor of Basketball Insiders, having covered the NBA for the last nine seasons.

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NBA AM: Is It Smart To Bet On Yourself In This Market?

Many extension-eligible players opted to bet on themselves and a questionable free agent marketplace next summer.

Steve Kyler

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No Big Surprises On Draft Extensions

The big news yesterday wasn’t a new extension for a 2014 first round draft pick, it was the news that the San Antonio Spurs reached a three-year, $72 million extension with veteran LaMarcus Aldridge.

The news was surprising for a couple of reasons. The biggest being the Spurs had shopped Aldridge in trade scenarios this offseason under the idea that he was a problematic fit for the Spurs.

Ultimately, Aldridge and the Spurs ended up in the same place on his deal. The Spurs were not going to be big free agent players and locking Aldridge in now gives them some security as well as trade leverage later. In Aldridge’s case, his camp saw the marketplace this past summer and all of the mouths that need to be fed in July and realized he wasn’t likely getting more money on the open market come free agency.

One of the things the Spurs found out was that trading a player with a player option is not an easy task as teams that would give up value want to know what comes next, either way. Over the past few years, player options have become almost toxic in trade, mainly because there are two classes of trade partners, one that wants the ending contract and a player for a stretch run in the postseason and teams that want the player for next season. The options make valuing the player sticky at best.

In doing a deal for Aldridge, the Spurs basically lock him into their roster for this season but give themselves a trade chip next summer, if they need it. This was smart for both sides. The Spurs locked in the player and the trade asset, Aldridge locked in money he likely wouldn’t have gotten in the open market.

For those players drafted in the first round of the 2014 NBA Draft, yesterday closed the window on the “Early Extension Period.” While there were talks all the way to the wire on several players, the bulk of the deals that didn’t get done didn’t get close enough to seal the deal.

The Boston Celtics and Marcus Smart frequently talked about an extension, and his camp labeled the talks as getting “close” but ultimately, future luxury tax concerns killed a possible deal before the extension deadline, meaning Smart will hit free agency in July.

The Celtics will have a couple of months to see if Smart continues to evolve before they have to make decisions, and they now know what a deal would take for Smart to sign outright. Given the Celtics tax concerns, there is a window for a team with cap space to poach him in July if they come with the right kind of offer sheet. While the Celtics can obtain the right to match Smart with a $6.53 million qualifying offer, the tax issues won’t go away without a cap dump of a trade. Equally, the Celtics roster is loaded with point guards, so the C’s have the luxury of seeing what unfolds in the next three months before the February 8 trade deadline.

The Orlando Magic and their pair of 2014 draftees, Aaron Gordon and Elfird Payton, talked about extensions, mostly out of courtesy. The Magic would have done deals if it favored the team, but the new front office in Orlando has been open and honest that they are still very much in evaluation mode on the roster and were not going to pay a premium at this point.

The Magic’s reluctance to do a deal wasn’t about valuing either player as both are said to have been very good so far, this preseason. The Magic don’t have a clear-cut direction yet and inking a long-term deal with either would have been counter to their goal of flexibility. Equally, the Magic also know that both players are unlikely to get huge free agent offers unless they blossom this season, which would make matching an easier decision after seeing how they play this season.

Neither player entered the process expecting to reach a deal, so there is no ill-will about not getting an extension. Both players have said publicly and privately they knew they had to earn their next deal and came into camp with that mindset.

The Utah Jazz and guard Rodney Hood engaged on an extension most of the summer. The Jazz are very committed to Hood, but would not commit to a deal at this point for a bunch of reasons, the biggest being they don’t really know what the team is yet. Hood is going to get a big opportunity this year, and the Jazz want to see if he can handle the increased load and stay healthy. Injuries have ravaged the Jazz lately, and they were reluctant to lock in a big number to a player that hasn’t been durable.

Of the bunch, Hood is the most likely to get a deal without the restricted free agent offer sheet process next summer—the Jazz may simply pony up and pay him if he can fill the void they hope he can for the team.

The Milwaukee Bucks and injured forward Jabari Parker did talk about an extension despite him having torn his ACL for the second time. The Bucks looked at the idea of locking Parker in at a value, but ultimately, neither side got close enough for it to be realistic. Parker is expected to return to action sometime in February, meaning he may log enough games for a big deal in July to be realistic, especially if the Bucks are as good as they project to be this year and land home court in the postseason.

The big hurdle for all of the players that did not get an extension is that the free agent marketplace in July does not project to be as robust as it was even last year. A number of agents urged their clients to take the security of money on the table this summer, and many players opted to bet on themselves, which always sounds like a great idea until the reality of restricted free agency sets in.

Nerlens Noel and JaMychal Green were both causalities of a shrinking marketplace this past summer. It will be interesting to see if some of the players that got close this week get less in the open market in July.

More Twitter: Make sure you are following all of our guys on Twitter to ensure you are getting the very latest from our team: @stevekylerNBA, @MikeAScotto, @LangGreene, @EricPincus, @joelbrigham, @TommyBeer, @MokeHamilton@jblancartenba, @Ben_Dowsett, @SpinDavies, @BuddyGrizzard, @JamesB_NBA, @DennisChambers_ and @Ben__Nadeau.

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NBA PM: Hornets Rookies May Become Key Contributors

Some key injuries may force Charlotte’s rookies into becoming effective role players earlier than expected, writes James Blancarte.

James Blancarte

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As the NBA finally gets underway tomorrow evening, the 2017 rookie draft class will get their first taste of regular season action. Teams reliant on young rookie talent might produce an exciting brand of basketball but that rarely translates into a winning formula. Having rookies play a key role for a team hoping to make the playoffs can be a risky endeavor.

Out West, the Los Angeles Lakers are relying on both Lonzo Ball as well as Kyle Kuzma, who may have worked his way into the rotation with his surprising preseason play. However, the Lakers are, at this point, not realistic contenders in the competitive Western Conference. In the East, the Philadelphia 76ers have more realistic playoff hopes. The team is relying on this year’s top overall draft pick, Markelle Fultz, and 2016’s top pick, Ben Simmons, for meaningful production. Although Simmons has been in the league for over a year, he is still classified as a rookie for this season since he didn’t play last season.

The Charlotte Hornets are looking to return to the playoffs after narrowly missing the cut this past season. The team will likely feature not one, but two true rookies as a part of their regular rotation. Like the Lakers, the Hornets feature a highly touted rookie with the talent and poise to contribute right away in Malik Monk. The team also features Dwayne Bacon, a rookie that has flashed scoring potential as well as maturity — key attributes that will allow him to quickly contribute to the team.

Both players will be given the opportunity to contribute as a result of the unfortunate and untimely injury to forward Nicolas Batum. Batum tore a ligament in his left elbow in an October 4 preseason game against the Detroit Pistons. Initial speculation was that the injury would require surgery. However, it was announced on October 10 that surgery would not be necessary, and that he is projected to return in six to eight weeks. Assuming that there are no setbacks in Batum’s recovery, the Hornets will be looking to replace his perimeter scoring, playmaking abilities and perimeter defense. Enter Monk and Bacon.

Monk and Bacon have both shown the ability to score the ball, which is not exactly a common trait in Hornets rookies. Bacon, the 40th pick in the 2017 NBA draft, has made it a point to look for his shot from the outside, averaging 7.8 three-point shots per game while knocking down 33.3 percent of his attempts. As Bacon gains more experience, he presumably will learn how to get cleaner looks at the basket within the flow of the team’s offense. Doing so should help him increase his shooting percentage from beyond the arc, which would turn him into an even more effective contributor for Charlotte.

Bacon spoke to reporters after a recent preseason game against the Boston Celtics. Bacon was placed in the starting lineup and went 4-4 from three-point range in 34 minutes of action.

When asked what are some of the things he wanted to work on, Bacon focused on one end of the court in particular.

“Definitely defense. I’m trying to perfect the defensive side, I want to be one of the best two-way players to ever play the game,” Bacon stated. “I feel like I got the offensive side so just keep getting better on defense, I’ll be fine.”

Lack of consistency and defense are key factors that prevent many rookies from playing and being successful on winning teams right away. Based on Bacon’s size (6-foot-6, 221 pounds with a long wingspan) and physicality, he has the physical tools necessary to play passable defense. Combine that with his ability to score (he led the team in scoring in three of its five preseason games) and the unfortunate injury to Batum, it’s apparent that Bacon will get an opportunity to make the rotation and contribute.

Reliable two-way players on the wing are crucially important, but are not always readily available and are even less common on cheap contracts. The Los Angeles Clippers went through the entire Chris Paul/Blake Griffin era swapping small forwards on a nearly annual basis, struggling to find this kind of contribution from the wing. With little cap flexibility, the Clippers were unable to acquire a forward that could effectively and consistently play both end of the court, which caused issues over the years. As a second round pick, Bacon is set to make $815,615 in his first year. If Bacon is able to contribute at even a league average level, that will be a major boost for the shorthanded Hornets. Bacon is smart to focus on improving as a defender as Steve Clifford is a defensive-minded coach who will leave talented players on the bench if they aren’t making a positive impact on the defensive end of the court.

In fact, Clifford offered some strong simultaneous praise and criticism of Monk when it came to his scoring and defense.

“He can score, he can score, he can score [speaking of Monk],” Clifford stated. “I think his defense will come because he’s willing, he’s a good guy. I think that being a good player is very important to him.”

It’s apparent in Clifford’s comment that he values scoring, but that defense is also extremely important and essential to any player that wants to be a “good player.”

“He knows and understands that the way he has played in the past [in college], he can’t play in this league if he wants to be a good player,” Clifford said about Monk. “The big thing is, I told him, when people say, ‘he’s a talented offensive player’ that is a lot different than somebody saying, ‘he’s a talented NBA player.’”

Point guard Michael Carter-Williams also suffered an injury (bone bruise in his left knee), which received less attention than Batum’s injury. While Carter-Williams is not the same caliber of player as Batum, the Hornets are alarmingly thing at backup point guard. Without Carter-Williams, the team was going to lean on Batum to act as a playmaker more than he has in the past, which would have, at least in part, addressed the lack of an established backup point guard. But with Batum sidelined, Coach Clifford has given Monk time at the point guard position. If Monk proves capable of playing both guard positions and playing alongside Walker, that could go a long way towards mitigating the loss of Batum and Carter-Williams. It’s not reasonable to expect Monk (or Bacon) to produce as consistently as a seasoned veteran, but having them contribute at a league average level would constitute a big win for a Charlotte team with serious playoff aspirations.

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Teams Refuse To Back Down To Stacked Warriors

Golden State got better over the summer, but that didn’t stop others from trying to stop them from repeating as champions

Spencer Davies

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Opening week is finally upon us.

Appropriately enough, the new-look Cleveland Cavaliers and Boston Celtics will kick off the 2017-18 NBA season tomorrow night, as will the defending champion Golden State Warriors when they host the improved Houston Rockets.

The clear-cut favorites to win the league title are the ones who have done so two out of the past three years, and rightfully so. Warriors general manager Bob Myers has done a masterful job of assembling a juggernaut. They’ve kept their insanely talented core intact and—aside from Ian Clark and Matt Barnes—haven’t lost any of their key bench pieces to free agency.

In fact, Golden State has added to that dangerous second unit. Jordan Bell was bought from the Chicago Bulls and will bring another Draymond Green-esque impact almost immediately. Nick Young and Omri Casspi were brought in to fill the void of backup wings, which is an improvement at the position anyway. With the same roster as last year and better reserves to give the starters a breather, there’s no reason Steve Kerr and company can’t repeat if they stay healthy.

Knowing what the Warriors are capable of and how well they are set up to truly be a dynasty, there are some league executives out there who are hesitant to make significant moves that could potentially flop against such a powerhouse.

ESPN’s Zach Lowe reported back in middle June that select teams don’t want to risk a big play because of it. What that basically translates into is: We’re throwing in the white towel until that ball club disbands.

But luckily for fans and for parity’s sake, there was a handful of general managers that refused to take that path. Just looking down the list in the Western Conference, there were organizations that swung for the fences this summer.

The aforementioned Rockets are one of them.Daryl Morey pieced together multiple trades to allow him to land Chris Paul to play next to James Harden and form a dynamic backcourt tandem. Houston also signed a pair of veteran two-way players in Luc Mbah a Moute and P.J. Tucker to provide depth and defense.

What about the Oklahoma City Thunder? Just when we thought Russell Westbrook’s MVP season was enough to maybe build off, the unthinkable happened. Sam Presti unloaded Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis to Indiana after just one season with the team to add All-Star forward Paul George, who is in a contract year.

That blockbuster move was followed up with another two months later, as Presti decided to deal fan favorite Enes Kanter and Doug McDermott to the Knicks in exchange for Carmelo Anthony. The creation of a Westbrook-George-Anthony big three forms an elite trio that is determined to prove championship worthiness.

Top tier Eastern Conference counterparts did their due diligence as well. The Cavaliers and Celtics are essentially rivals and became trade partners in an attempt to re-tool their respective rosters, in addition to gaining important pieces outside of that.

Boston inked Gordon Hayward to a maximum contract to create a bolstered starting unit alongside Isaiah Thomas, Avery Bradley, and Al Horford until madness happened.

Firstly, Bradley got moved in a swap with the Detroit Pistons for Marcus Morris to address the hole at power forward. After that—with reports of Kyrie Irving’s unhappiness in Cleveland swirling around the basketball universe—Celtics general manager Danny Ainge acted immediately and swung a deal for the All-Star point guard in exchange for his All-Star point guard, a vital member of his team in Jae Crowder and the coveted Brooklyn Nets first-round pick.

It’s almost a brand new squad, but Brad Stevens has a versatile group to work with to try and finally dethrone the conference champions of the last three years.

As for the East’s cream of the crop, the Cavaliers moves are well known because wherever LeBron James goes the spotlight follows. Thomas and Crowder were huge gets for first-time general manager Koby Altman, especially after the outside growing doubt in the franchise’s front office. The rookie executive was also instrumental in signing Derrick Rose, Jeff Green, and Dwyane Wade to veteran minimum contracts.

Rose and Green have plenty of motivation because their critics think they’re washed up, meaning Tyronn Lue won’t have to give them a reason to play their hearts out. Wade simply made the decision to come to Cleveland because he can play with his best friend and potentially add to his collection of championship rings.

Ante Zizic, Cedi Osman, and Jose Calderon are also now a part of the roster that all-of-a-sudden is now deep at almost every position. It’s a new flavor for a team that may have only one year left to compete for a title with James’ pending free agency next summer.

Those four teams feel great about their chances to get in the way of the Warriors. It doesn’t stop there though. The West in general loaded up.

The Minnesota Timberwolves executed the first big move of the year when they traded for Jimmy Butler. The Denver Nuggets signed Paul Millsap to provide leadership and a veteran voice in a young locker room full of talent. The San Antonio Spurs lost Jonathan Simmons but brought in a very capable Rudy Gay under-the-radar as Kawhi Leonard’s backup.

Nobody expected the league to completely fold and hand Golden State another championship, but it was surprising (and relieving) to see so many teams have the fortitude to pull off the moves that they did. There was definitely risk involved for some of them, however, one thing is for certain.

The Warriors will not have a cakewalk to the NBA Finals. They will have to go through a rigorous set of teams in the West throughout the regular season and the playoffs.

If any team is up to the task, it’s Golden State. But we’ll see how it plays out starting about 24 hours from now.

See you at tip-off.

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