NEW YORK -- J.R. Smith is the NBA's Sixth Man of the Year. Let that swirl around your synapses for a moment. The man that referred to himself as a #STARER, posted Instagram photos of his coach giving him a WTF look on the bench and dared ask the important questions -- You trying to get the pipe? -- is our Sixth Man of the Year.
And how can we forget the best hoops anthem since Kurtis Blow's Basketball?
I crossed over, from journeyman
To Sixth Man ... of the year
In a contract year... with an option
It's my option, to shoot or to pass
To score, you got to shoot
To score more, you got to shoot more
To score more, you got to shoot more. No can argue with that.
Knicks fans are reveling in their man's triumph, but this is also a victory for the freaks and geeks who bought a ticket to ride the J.R. Roller Coaster this season. He is, oddly enough, a man of the people and the id of every weekend baller's extended hoops fantasy. J.R. Smith plays basketball the way we all secretly wish we could, as an uninhibited gunner with nary a conscience or seemingly a worry in the world.
Of course, Smith never would have the award if he had simply remained a charming chucker. No one besides Knick fans seriously had him atop their Sixth Man Power Rankings at the All-Star break. To reach his potential, Smith had to adapt his game. Over the last few months he has upped his scoring and increased his efficiency by playing -- more or less -- like a grown up.
There's a moral in there somewhere, but there's also a danger in ascribing a deeper lesson beyond a player finding a more refined game. Nevertheless, his evolutionary arc has been one of the more enduring, and yes endearing subplots of the 2012-13 season. With a huge assist from Poasting & Toasting's Seth Rosenthal, let's examine the journey:
While his nocturnal adventures drew the ire of many a talking head, as well as his coach, not all of his nighttime activities were NSFW. In September, Smith took fans on an after-hours bike tour of Manhattan. This was J.R. at his weirdest and sweetest. Just an overgrown kid on a bike connecting with the people.
Speaking of his coach, Mike Woodson deserves a very large hand for shepherding Smith through his breakout season. In camp, he announced his intentions to bring him off the bench, leading to the classic #STARER hashtag.
In retrospect this was one of the key decisions Woodson made. By bringing Smith off the bench, he allowed him to take a leading role when Carmelo Anthony was taking a break. In other words, he allowed J.R. to be J.R. Not that it was always that simple ...
IN THE BEGINNING
Like the Knicks, Smith started the season on a roll, averaging 18 points and shooting an absurd 74 percent from three-point range as they won their first six games. It was a wonderful beginning ... and look, he's even wearing suits now!
He regressed almost immediately, then rebounded with a stretch of fantastic performances highlighted by two game-winners in the course of three weeks. With Melo out of the lineup following a Christmas Day loss to the Lakers, Smith took 27 shots and missed 16 of them, including all four of his three-pointers, in a game against the Suns. He also made two ridiculous jumpers in the final 10 seconds to tie and then win the game for the Knicks.
The first came on a step-back fallaway corkscrew number with P.J. Tucker all over him. The second came on a running leaner at the buzzer. There were options on the play, but only one as far as Smith was concerned.
"It was premeditated," he said after the game. "I was walking around the court going, 'You are going to make it, you are going to make it.'"
By February, Smith was airballing free throws and playing in halftime games with kids, who froze him out. This was classic angel on one shoulder, devil on the other, with a huge dose of class clown in the middle. It was maddening. It was hilarious. It was J.R.
He beefed with Lance Stephenson and got kicked out of a dreadful 34-point loss to the Pacers, and that seemed to be the way things went for Smith. He alternated between Good J.R. and Bad J.R. with little rhyme or reason. A few weeks after the Indiana loss, he nearly beat the Thunder by himself. Then, he was horrific in a loss to the Warriors later that week.
Things reached their nadir in a 93-80 loss to the Clippers during a dreadful West Coast trip when he hoisted 20 shots and missed 16 of them. The loss left the Knicks at just 38-26, staggering and reeling under the weight of so many injuries that Kurt Thomas essentially sacrificed what was left of his career to give them a few minutes.
It was around then that Smith's whole game began to change and take shape. He no longer settled for contested jumpers. He drove the lane and drew contact, calling on the vast array of scoring skills that coaches have been trying to draw out of him for years.
He destroyed the Celtics in late March when the C's looked like they still had some fight left in them, kickstarting a run of three straight 30+ games. How was this the same guy who launched 40 (!) three-pointers in a three-game stretch in February?
Both Woodson and Smith described their relationship as something like father-son, but it's telling that Woodson seems to have been able to reach Smith on a different level than others have.
"I think you've got to put him in the right positions and you've got to be demanding with him and not let him off the hook, and I've tried not to do that with him," Woodson said at the time. "Sometimes I can get away with things I say with him and sometimes I can't."
This kind of interplay takes place all over the league. Take a demanding coach and pair him with a headstrong, albeit talented player, and sparks will inevitably fly. The real lesson here is the mutual understanding the two have forged, which appears to be the key to everything.
Let's not pretend that success on the court means maturity in a human sense any more than failure necessarily indicates a lack of growth. Sometimes the two things are connected. Sometimes, they're not. Somewhere along the way, Smith and Woodson were able to reach some kind of an understanding, and that's to be applauded.
And Smith is to be applauded as well for turning around a career that was on the fast track to nowhere to the Sixth Man of the Year. And to think, it never would have happened had he been allowed to be a starer.