NEW YORK – On a one-week assignment with the Nuggets last season in full anticipation of Carmelo Anthony exclusively spilling his guts to me about every aspect of his life and forthcoming destination, I accompanied the team on its charter to Phoenix.
There was a shootaround the morning of the game, Nov. 15, 2010. J.R. Smith overslept. When he showed up, eyes bloodshot and all-attitude, he was nonchalant about his lateness. George Karl was pretty peeved.
The coach made some comments. Smith talked back. Karl retorted. Smith kicked a basketball. Karl ordered him to leave the gym. Smith refused. Teammates interceded and ushered him out. It was not a syrupy situation.
Smith was in his own world that day, a misshapen world that routinely has earned him suspensions (two games in this case), arrests, and even jail time for a friend (Andre Bell) dying when Smith drove his SUV through a stop sign.
Smith’s seven NBA seasons have been an ongoing series of hints and allegations (complaints from hotels about noise and smells), as well as incidents and accidents, with time off for bad behavior in China.
During the lockout, his sister, Stephanie, and girlfriend were involved in a brawl in the stands that J.R. promptly joined as their defender.
Something disturbing always seems to be going on in his life. There have been fistfights with professional opponents (Knicks), chokeholds applied to amateurs (a kid in a Denver pickup game) and confrontations with coaches regarding his careless and carefree approach to the game.
One coaching conflict got especially personal, I’m told. That partially explains why Byron Scott insisted the Hornets trade Smith July 13, 2006, after a disappointing second (7.7 points per game) season.
Then again, getting Tyson Chandler in return from the Bulls suggests the decision couldn’t have been all that difficult.
Conversely, as much as there’s mounting evidence Smith has a loose connection, teammates like him. By all accounts, he’s not a troublemaker in the locker room. Nobody has anything bad to say.
That’s why Carmelo Anthony vouched for him to the Knicks before they signed the serial scorer ($2.5 million) to be their long distance luger for the remaining 35 games and the playoffs.
On second thought, the above needs to be qualified. At one time, Smith and Anthony were very close. However, at some point, a source says, Melo got fed up with J.R.
I don’t know why. Maybe it was his unwillingness to conform. Maybe because Smith wouldn’t do whatever it took to win. Maybe because he became a frequent distraction.
Who knows, maybe Smith’s craving to shoot 100 times a game clashed with Melo’s craving to shoot 200 times.
Don’t’ get me wrong; Melo and Smith remained boys in Denver and evidently still are. You couldn’t tell their relationship was strained unless you were really wired to the radio (another Paul Simon reference), but it definitely got frayed, one forward observer attests.
Not to say Smith is devoid of redeeming features. Aside from his tempestuous talent (see below appraisal), he interacted great with the fans, either in the arena or when doing appearances when he showed up on time. Often, he was delayed and occasionally was AWOL.
In other words, he couldn’t be relied on because something bad was bound to happen.
And that was supposed to be a positive paragraph. Let’s try again:
If you don’t know any of what’s on top, if you blot out all the stuff unrelated to putting points on the scoreboard, Smith is a 100 percent All-Star. No question.
The athletically freakish big 198-cm two-guard can get any shot he wants, any time he wants; he’s poisonous from 3-point range; and he’s almost never injured or at least doesn’t feel any pain.
Smith can sprain an ankle in practice and shake it off by game time. His majority of missed games were at the direction of David Stern and VP of Violence Stu Jackson.
As far as Smith’s intermittently delinquent defense is concerned, when facing an intimidating challenge he’s clearly mentally and physically undaunted; see 2009 Western Conference finals matchup against Kobe Bryant.
Obviously, Kobe also likes Smith; otherwise, it’s doubtful the Lakers would have showed so much love for him.
Same goes for former Hornets’ teammate, Chris Paul, who endorsed him to my Hedge Clippers. It’s not like the gifted head case was unwanted . . . other than the Nuggets.
If others with more to lose were prepared to take a chance on him, why should we worry about the 16-17 Knicks ruining chemistry they haven’t developed a sure formula for minus Melo?
It might be because Smith has proved to be the worst kind of head case . . . one on a winning team, with a great coach, with a superstar, in a small market, with no pressure at all, and he was still impossible to manage or control.
James Dolan thinks he got Latrell Sprewell, but Smith could just as easily turn out to be J.R. Rider.
Hall of Fame forward Adrian Dantley sees it differently. The former Nuggets’ long-time assistant, who took over for Karl following his cancer surgery and played Smith more in the playoffs than the staff preferred, says he’s J.R.’s biggest fan . . . or no less than tied with Knicks’ personnel director/former Denver VP Mark Warkentien.
“When J.R. plays the right way (tones down the flamboyance) he’s one of the best two-guards in the league,” Dantley said. “I guarantee you he’s going to win them some games with his heart, incredible shot-making ability and agility.”
The Knicks will be fine as long as they keep the ball in Jeremy Lin’s hands, Dantley accentuates. “Melo and J.R. feel they must have the ball. They would rather make the ‘ooh-ah’ type play vs. catch-and-shoot. Lin will make their lives a lot easier if the team keeps doing what it’s doing.
“Yeah, I like Lin. He’s the best thing to hit New York in years.”
Peter Vecsey covers the NBA for the New York Post.