Who does that?
Who jackknifes a dude’s face in an elimination game on purpose?
Who tweets out close-up photos of supermodel asscheeks – so close you could scan the lingering handprints – in the middle of the night before a game?
Who shoots off-balance 22-footers with 21 seconds on the shot clock?
Who the shit dyes their hair blond, gets threatened with castration by his superior if that decision isn’t immediately reversed, and decides the smart thing to do is dye it red?
Who drives around a $450,000 four-wheeled Apocalypse with snails painted on the side? Fucking cartoon snails with shells made of money.
Hell, who has to deny having done that?
A knucklehead – that’s who.
Few players in modern NBA history have eschewed “the easy way” quite like JR Smith. He’s the kind of guy who stops in front of a moving airport walkway for 20 minutes trying to hail a terminal taxi before angrily walking the remaining distance on foot, wondering the whole time why everyone to his left is moving so much faster.
It’s entirely possible that he’s ordered delivery and driven to Domino’s 25 minutes later to pick it up.
That famed Forest Gump refrain was originally written as, “Life is like a box of JR Smiths – ARE YOU FUCKING SHITTING ME?”
During the offseason, he’ll spend five straight days mowing his lawn with toenail clippers, then ride his John Deere down to the mailbox because he’s too exhausted to walk.
On the court, he is basketball bacchanalia incarnate, a mindblowing melding of breathtaking talent, sporadic brilliance, and Homer Simpson. Every time Earl touches the ball is like a neural-physical Russian roulette – the feel of the sweaty leather can spark in his skull a rainbow of seamless free jazz cues, or a series of small strokes. Off-ball, the potential results can be equally garbled: “Wow, that was quite literally the perfect cut at the perfect time,” or, “Oh look, JR just rotated onto that cotton candy vendor.” If you handed him a sheet that explained in the simplest terms possible how he averages 45% on catch-and-shoot threes and 8% on attempts preempted by two or more dribbles, he’d probably ask you to call his cell instead, thinking you’d just handed him your digits.
“It’s easier that way.”
And yet, for all the Jekyll-Hyde bullshit, there are these two, very crucial facts: Smith is 1) 27; and 2) coming off a season that, while not the most efficient by many metrics, saw him tally a bevy of career-highs in spite of a sky-high usage rate.
Of course, even the process of getting there — to this plateau of bona fide second gun — had to be a bone-jarring, nosebleed-inducing rollercoaster nightmare: In seven games played January 10th and 27th, J.R. was 33-119 from the floor.
Thirty-three for one hundred and nineteen.
A few months later, he went 57-102 during a nine-day, six-game stretch in late March, the apex of a spring surge that helped net him the league’s Sixth Man of the Year Award.
How did J.R. Smith handle this newfound, heretofore largely elusive respect and notoriety? By flying completely off the rails in a month-long trainwreck of batshit shot selection, ill-advised late nights out, and – perhaps most pertinent – a nagging knee injury which Smith and the Knicks waited until two months after the season to officially address, because we are the Marx Brothers of basketball. In 11 playoff Games, JR registered a PER of 10, a TS% of 43% (including a whopping 27% from distance), an ORTG of 87 (EIGHTY-SEVEN!), and minus-0.5 offensive win shares. The French in 1918 had a better spring, and they were eating dirt clods with their own blood it them three meals a day.
Given his DeLorean-esque collapse, it’s easy to forget the blistering streaks and game-winners that peppered Smith’s intermittently impressive campaign. And that’s kind of understandable. It is, after all, something of a simple fact of human wiring that we’d consciously avoid mining YouTube clips of a 3-year-old thoroughbred just months after it reared up and kicked us right in the fucking mouth. Oh, those clips are there alright. In them, and in the interceding archived game footage, you’re reminded of both how far JR has come, and how bad the interspersed stupidity begins to look by scale; the more confident the pull-up lift and flawless right-hand extension, the weirder the defensive gambles. Which is why I stuck solely to the mixtapes. There’s a reason grains of salt are so delicious by the fistful.
Then there’s his defense and rebounding, two sectors where Smith quietly made some of his biggest impacts, and put up a bevy of career bests: His 2.7 defensive win shares marked a runaway high, while his TRB% (9.3) was second only to his 2011 season (9.4), despite garnering a higher DRB% (16.3 to 15.8) and an identical ORB% (2.7 in both seasons) — chalk it up to the added minutes, I guess. Sure, he could occasionally be found leaking out too early (SHAWN KEMP JOKE) or mysteriously rotating onto massive blocks of empty space. But it was also the case that Smith’s engaged defense and rebounding proved the clandestine turning points during tough stretches — stretches where he was, quite literally, the most trustworthy player on either end of the floor. No, that was not supposed to be “terrorworthy.”
With Smith’s status for the start of the season a matter of some speculation, many will be looking for another Knick guard – this one that rare, luminous lining around said playoff shit-cloud – to assert himself as the team’s two-gun of the future: Iman Shumpert. Granted, the two’s rolls have been, and remain, distinct: Shump will likely be an opening game starter, while Earl’s role as A-1 bench punch seems destined for career’s cementing – at least while he’s in the orange and blue. Still, the two’s positional redundancy, coupled with opposing career trajectories, could render this a rivalry in the making. How a still-recovering Smith handles his return, and possible initial minutes reduction, will be telling.
But – and this is wholly to his credit – Smith has never been one to fret over such things, anyway. For all his antacid antics, Earl seems to be, by just about any account that matters, a pretty good dude. He’s beloved by teammates and coaches, hoisted as a beacon by his adoring family, and a genuine cult favorite for a fan base that doesn’t easily forsake its heroes, however prone those heroes might be to fits and starts, disastrous disappearing acts, or “good morning” tweets at 4pm.
JR Smith is a knucklehead. But he’s our knucklehead, God dammit. And if there’s a family out there better equipped than Knick Knation to deal with the next of that kin, I ain’t heard of ‘em.
Grades (5 point scale):
Final Grade: B