As the end of the season draws near, voters have begun to form their opinions on candidates for trophies. Every award has a player in the lead at present time and that holds true for the 6th Man of the Year accolade.
After spending much of the season firmly entrenched in talks as a candidate for the title of best reserve in the league this season, Jarrett Jack has fallen off in the race ever so slightly.
It’s not that he’s been bad late in the season, far from it. But quite frankly, two players have distinguished themselves thanks in large part to their sustained excellence off the bench.
The battle for the 6th Man of the Year award will come down to two guys: J.R. Smith of the New York Knicks and Jamal Crawford of the Los Angeles Clippers.
Not so coincidentally, both players operate in two of the biggest markets in the NBA. Consequently, that’s given them opportunities in the national spotlight. Being in the media isn’t sufficient though. Wins are still the currency by which the NBA operates.
Smith’s Knicks own the third most wins in the Eastern Conference while Crawford’s Clippers have the fourth best record in the Western Conference.
The overall records of both teams combined with the great play off the bench by these two players clearly give them an inside track as it pertains to the 6th Man of the Year award.
But he’s more than just a highlight-reel.
The former Michigan Wolverine has great ball-handling skills and that gives him an opportunity to run the offense and facilitate plays for his teammates on occasion. With that said, most of his value is a direct result of his scoring ability.
Unlike prior seasons, Crawford is not only putting the ball in the basket, but he is doing this with moderate efficiency. He gives the Clippers’ second unit much needed shooting — 37 percent 3-point shooting this season — and stretches the court for Lob City whenever he earns minutes in crunch time.
During parts of the season, it felt as though he was in the lead for the honor of top bench player and this might have become reality if not for Earl Smith III.
Unless something drastic occurs during the month of April, J.R. Smith is the league’s best reserve based on his play this season.
Smith has embraced his talents this year and performed like the player most always knew he was or would become. Although he is prone to a few low percentage shots, he has for the most part figured out where he fits on the basketball court.
His job requires that he take open shots, pass the ball when a teammate is available and cut to the hoop whenever a lane opens up for him. If he can bring up the ball and get into the paint, even better.
And really, that’s what the Knicks’ shooting guard has done this year. He has always played with confidence and swagger, he was just missing a little direction.
Whenever Carmelo Anthony has been scratched from the lineup due to injury, Smith has filled in admirably by putting up points and even nailing a few game-winning shots.
Smith has not only played well this season, he’s been fairly consistent. A look at his splits reveals that his productivity has been about the same in every month this year.
More importantly, with the regular season nearing its conclusion, he’s stepped his game up. Since the All-Star break, the former Denver Nugget is averaging 21 points, 5.6 rebounds and 2.7 assists per game on 44.4 percent field goal shooting and 37.2 percent from 3-point range.
Interestingly enough, one factor completely out of Smith’s control was needed for his game to go up a notch: injuries.
With Anthony missing games, it automatically turned him into New York’s top option. What’s more, with Amar’e Stoudemire also missing considerable time, it opened up the court for his driving lanes and long-range shooting.
Indeed, according to NBA.com’s advanced stats tool, with the former Sun on the court next to him, Smith averaged 16.5 points per 36 minutes on 37.7 percent shooting from the floor.
With Stoudemire out of the equation, he increased his production to 19.8 points per 36 minutes on 42.6 percent field goal shooting.
In other words, the absence of STAT has benefitted the Knicks’ guard by giving him more scoring chances.
He has taken advantage of the newfound opening and turned himself into one of the most productive shooting guards in the NBA. He owns the sixth best PER of any 2-guard in the league and his highlight-reel alone might earn him some votes for top reserve of the year.
But one thing that isn’t getting enough publicity about Smith this season is quite possibly the most crucial aspect of his play this year: the Knicks are simply better with him out there.
That hasn’t always been the case.
But we’ve reached the point where we can definitively say he’s no longer hit or miss. His occasional playmaking make it as such that he mostly creates for himself, but he’ll also hit his open teammates.
Defensively, his focus isn’t always perfect but for the most part he is in tune with the team’s philosophy. He understands which players he can rotate off of and provides support for other Knickerbockers when they are beat.
Smith could do a much better job of positioning himself to take charges or impede the path of opponents but that’s a work in progress. Nonetheless, his tenacity and understanding of the Knicks’ scheme result in NY giving up fewer points when he is on the floor.
NBA.com’s advanced stats tool tells us that with Earl on the hardwood, the Knicks defense is knocking at the door of the league’s top-10. With him on the bench though, they’re in the bottom 10.
That’s not entirely a product of Smith’s play obviously. Pairing him alongside Jason Kidd and Tyson Chandler has done wonders for him both personally and also for the Knicks.
Given that Chandler and Kidd have a great grasp of Woodson’s concepts, they can bail out Smith whenever he gets lost in a rotation, but in truth, he’s been good on this front this season. In 622 minutes played together in 2012-13, the trio of Smith, Kidd and Chandler has provided New York with stinginess on par statistically with the Miami Heat according to NBA.com’s advanced stats tool.
One would be tempted to proclaim that Woodson has been hiding Smith defensively, but that’s not exactly the case. He’s been pulling his weight here and there.
Couple that with his point production off the bench folks and you have your 6th Man of the Year.
Statistical support provided by NBA.com.
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