Does JR Smith Make the Knicks Better?

J.R. Smith is undoubtedly electrifying and incredibly skilled. In fact, he is probably capable of most anything in the 94 feet between baskets. Knicks fans have certain seen in in fits and starts. He’s caught fire, he’s hit game winners, he’s run the pick and roll, he’s had monster rebounding nights, he’s taken it to the rack at will, he’s played great D. It’s not hard to get why he’s a fan favorite.

And despite all of this, I’m not convinced he helps the team. Despite all of this, watching Smith on a regular basis more or less makes my eyes bleed.

Why?

Smith is a chucker, pure and simple. An electrifying, entertaining chucker. Heaving up a long and/or contested and/or early shot is beyond frustrating to watch, even if, on occasion, it works. I want to see the ball move. I want the Knicks to find an open man. I don’t want them to settle for low percentage shots. I want to see them win as much as possible, so I want them to be more efficient than the other team. This is important.

Possessions are a scarce commodity in the NBA, and even scarcer for the slow paced Knicks, who take 82 shots per game, ranking them towards the bottom of the league. With their sparse shots, one would think the Knicks would seek to maxmize efficiency. But Smith shoots an average of 15.3 times per game, and he connects on just 40.3% of them. For context, the league average shooting percentage is 45.1%. If you want to know why the Knicks are a subpar (44.2%) shooting team look no further than Smith and Raymond Felton (who also shoots terribly, at just 41.1%). Indeed it seems somewhat miraculous that with these two partners in crime shooting a combined 36% of the Knicks’ shots (they are each responsible for roughly 18%), the Knicks are as close to average as they are (and call that miracle Tyson Chandler – strip out his attempts and makes and the Knicks are shooting 42.7%, which would be second worst in the league).

Which brings me to one of the common ways people like to defend Smith: “He can create his own shot.” Well, woopdeedamndoo. Lookit, I’m reasonably certain that if given the green light, the Knicks could trot me out onto the court, where I could shoot 15 times. I would likely get rejected all 15 times, but I’d be “creating” my own shot in the sense that I’m getting off a lot of shots that have a small chance of going through the hoop. Smith excels at this. Smith will juke, he’ll spin, he’ll step-back, he’ll step-in (from an open shot to a covered one), he’ll shoot from 25 feet, he’ll shoot from 30 feet.

Yes, he will “create” shots. But I guess what I’m trying to say is that I simply don’t give a shit because he will prolifically miss them. In the last 20 years only 31 players have shot at or less than 40.3% from the field while jacking up as many shots as Smith currently is. 1.55 players per season, on average. And an interesting common thread between the Larry Hugheses and the Nick Van Exels and Baron Davises the Quentin Richardsons and the Antoine Walkers is that in the years that they boasted this ignominious distinction their teams were almost always pretty awful. That’s probably because the players on those teams were awful, and the guys doing all the shooting had to take a lot of shots. The Knicks, on the other hand, are a talented team. They’ve persevered despite the bad large percentage of their overall shots (attributable to Smith) being of the low percentage, squandered variety.

This also makes me question another crutch of the pro-Smith crowd (which seems to be most Knicks fans), namely: “He may be a knuckle-head but the Knicks are better when he plays”. There’s a number of ways we can evaluate whether this is true. Probably the easiest is to look at the Knicks’ net efficiency rating with Smith on the court vs. off the court. With Smith on the court the Knicks net rating (points scored per 100 possessions – points allowed per 100 possessions) is +5.9. With him off? +4.2. So you got me there, the Knicks have performed better overall when Smith plays. We could leave it there and be satisfied that Smith helps more than he hurts.

But something isn’t sitting quite right. As an initial matter, Smith plays more minutes than all but two Knicks (Anthony and Felton). He also plays more with Carmelo Anthony than all but two Knicks (Chandler and Felton), and with Tyson Chandler – the most efficient Knick by way of net-rating who plays regular minutes – than every Knick save Anthony and Felton. Thus there may be some noise in attempting to attribute team efficiency to just Smith, particularly when it’s so hard to reconcile his horrid shooting, the historically poor performance of teams with players boasting comparable numbers, and the Knicks’ success when he plays. There’s very clearly some sort of disconnect here.

How else to reconcile these facts? You’d have to think that the Knicks could boast an even better net-rating with another average NBA guard who shoots less than Smith – ceding those inefficient shots to a more efficient player like Anthony, Chandler, Stoudemire, or whoever else may have a conscience about shooting abysmally and often.

To that end we can get into the murky (for me at least) advanced stat territory of Estimated Wins Added (a Hollinger metric) or Wins Produced (courtesy of Dave Berri). These metrics are generally designed to quantify essentially every manner by which a given player contributes positively or negatively over the course of a game and/or season. Hollinger gives Smith a EWA of 5.4. Interestingly, there actually aren’t that many players better than Smith in the entire NBA according to Hollinger’s metric. However, I understand that EWA relies on PER as an input, which I further understand rewards players for shooting a lot. I bring up Hollinger’s stat for transparency purposes, but it doesn’t help me explain the above contradictions. Instead, it confuses me more.

Using the Wages of Wins stat though yields a Wins Produced/48 of .074 per game, which is below league average of .1, according to The NBA Geek, and behind players such as Jodie Meeks, Wayne Ellington, Wes Johnson, Lance Stephenson and Jerryd Bayless.

For most fans though, including me, this type of analysis is a bit too attenuated. I can’t really speak intelligently to whether Hollinger’s or Berri’s metrics are better. I performed poorly in calculus and regression, and most other maths in my academic career. But I will say that Berri’s calculations seem to jibe with the stats I do understand, which, taken together, help me form the underlying premise for this post, and dispense with another common refrain from many fans:

“The Knicks got a bargain – at the price they are paying, Smith is an absolute steal.”

I disagree with the assumption here: I dispute that Smith presents any value. That is, how is it possible to underpay a guy who forces the Knicks to dig themselves out of a 40% shooting hole on a fifth of the their shots? How much is a guy worth when it takes Tyson Chandler’s ridiculous shooting percentage to counteract the deleterious effect his percentages have on overall team performance? In my opinion he’s worth zip, and I’d rather not have him on the team. And if Smith was really worth more than he got, then why didn’t he get more elsewhere? To listen to some fans, you’d think more executives would’ve wooed Smith like Mark Warkentein did by meeting him at the airport the minute he set foot back in the states after the lockout ended. I suspect the Knicks were merely desperate to fill out the roster with live bodies after being decimated by the previous year’s ‘Melo trade, but that’s a story for another day.

Of course, I’m not a GM, and the next time Smith hits a bunch of threes all in a row, or hits a 30 footer with 20 seconds left on the shot clock, or drops a windmill over some hapless poor defender, or asks some other high school girl if she would like some pipe or some tube or some other long blunt object, celebrate and enjoy, because I get it, it’s fun.

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