J.R. Smith puts six fingers in the air, because he knows what's up. (Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
The New York Knicks piqued our interest with a vague Monday morning tweet:
The NBA will make an announcement at 2:30 PM today at MSG Training Center.
— NY_KnicksPR (@NY_KnicksPR) April 22, 2013
Just 10 minutes later, we found out the contents of said announcement:
JR Smith will be announced as Sixth Man of the Year this afternoon.
— Howard Beck (@HowardBeckNYT) April 22, 2013
That's right, sports fans. J.R. Smith — the New York Knicks' butt-photo-tweeting, midnight-bike-riding, Power-Rangers-loving, Sean-Paul-video-stealing, slow-jam-inspiring, title-tattoo-promising shooting guard — will be named the NBA's Sixth Man of the Year on Monday afternoon. That's just delightful, isn't it?
The voting falls in line with our 2013 NBA award predictions, in which all three of us here at BDL (along with Yahoo! Sports NBA columnist Marc J. Spears) tapped Smith as the league's best backup. Smith received 72 of 121 first-place votes, receiving 484 total points to take first place ahead of a slew of other very worthy candidates for the honor of the NBA's top reserve. Fellow shot-happy guard Jamal Crawford of the Los Angeles Clippers (the choice of Y! Sports editor Al Toby) finished second, receiving 31 first-place votes and 352 points.
Veteran Golden State Warriors point guard Jarrett Jack finished third, receiving 14 first-place votes, followed by sweet-scoring guard Kevin Martin of the Oklahoma City Thunder (two first-place votes), sharpshooting New Orleans Hornets forward Ryan Anderson (one first-place vote), Denver Nuggets point guard Andre Miller (zero first-place votes) ... and, amusingly enough, Jordan Crawford, who was traded from the Washington Wizards to the Boston Celtics during the season and received one first-place vote (which, one would suspect, probably intended to go to Jamal).
While strong arguments can be made for each of them (especially, in my view, L.A. microwave Crawford and game-finishing Golden State triggerman Jack), Smith led all reserves in scoring at 18.1 points per game, served as the clear No. 2 scoring option on the 54-28 Knicks all season long and played his best basketball of the season — and most efficient basketball of his career — as the Knicks turned in a 16-2 finish to their most successful season in 16 years.
The 27-year-old Smith, long known for his aversion to quality shot selection and penchant for firing high-difficulty step-back jumpers and deep 3-pointers, dedicated himself to attacking the basket over the final month of the season, taking more than one-third of his field-goal attempts from inside the restricted area and averaging just under seven free-throw attempts per game, both of which more than doubled his marks through the first 62 games of the season. As a result, he saw his offensive production skyrocket, averaging 23.7 points in 34.4 minutes per game on 48.2 percent shooting over his final 18 appearances.
Smith's late-season scoring surge was vital for a Knicks team that had to scramble a bit due to injuries to the likes of All-Stars Carmelo Anthony and Tyson Chandler, as well as frontcourt reserves Kenyon Martin, Rasheed Wallace, Kurt Thomas and Marcus Camby. As New York bigs dropped like flies and forced Mike Woodson to play an even smaller version of small-ball than he's used all season, J.R.'s steady, consistent production helped the Knicks lock down the Eastern Conference's second seed and earn their first Atlantic Division crown since the 1993-94 season.
(And yes, I did just refer to J.R. Smith's "steady, consistent production" unironically. Welcome to the weird, dystopian, unpredictable future, y'all.)
While his potent off-the-bench scoring and his surprise late-season turn toward efficiency are the primary drivers of his Sixth Man recognition, Smith provided significantly sharper all-around play for Woodson this season than he had at any point in his first eight NBA seasons. He proved to be a consistently determined rebounder from the shooting guard spot, especially on the defensive glass, where he grabbed a career-high 16.3 percent of opponents' misses en route to averaging a career-best 5.3 rebounds per game. He established himself as a capable facilitator as a pick-and-roll ball-handler, giving New York a secondary option when an initial action triggered by either Anthony or one of its point guards (Raymond Felton, Jason Kidd, Pablo Prigioni) came up empty.
He played small forward more often this season than in the past and did so more effectively, outscoring opposing threes by nearly nine points per 48 minutes of floor time; he even saw some time at the four spot late in the season as the Knicks were ravaged by injuries, and consistently seemed to be a more committed, attentive defender than in past seasons. The improved work as a rebounder and defender, combined with the season-long scoring punch and the fact that none of the other top contenders had nearly as strong a finish to the season, made Smith the top choice among Sixth Man voters.
It also makes Smith — who earned just $2.8 million this season in the first year of a two-year, $5.7 million contract — one of the better bargains in the NBA, just as he predicted he'd be this past offseason. It's unlikely he'll allow himself to be that much of a steal next season, though — Smith's got a player option for the 2013-14 season, and we're heading into a summer that looks short on impact free agents at the shooting guard position. (Plus, as Chris Herring of the Wall Street Journal notes, the last four players to win the Sixth Man of the Year Award wound up playing their next contract with a new team.)
It's a good bet that Smith would find at least a couple of suitors willing to pay him quite a bit more than $3 million per year on a multi-year deal; then again, given Smith's reported love of the Knicks' locker-room chemistry and his tight-knit relationship with Woodson, there might be some hope that Smith and the capped-out Knicks could find a solution to what appears to be a pending nettlesome salary problem.
That's a problem to be dealt with in the offseason, though. For now, the Knicks hold a 1-0 lead on the Boston Celtics in the first round of the playoffs, and a man who seven months ago wouldn't deign to think of himself as a backup is now the league's preeminent second-unit star. All that's left is for NBA Commissioner David Stern to hand Smith the award before Game 2 of the Knicks-Celtics series, a moment that our Eric Freeman recently said "could be the best television moment of 2013." I, for one, can't wait.