The Numbers Agree: J.R. Smith Should Keep Coming Off The Bench for the Denver Nuggets

[Note: Originally Posted 02-27-2010 at 10:09 PM by DenButsu]

A frequently debated question among Denver Nuggets fans is whether J.R. Smith should continue coming off the bench, or whether he should be moved up into the starting shooting guard position.

It’s arguable that he now comes off the bench for “good” reasons, whereas he previously was delegated as a reserve for “bad” reasons. The relationship between Smith and Coach George Karl has long been frustrating for both parties (not to mention us fans), although it seems to be on much more solid footing now.

Smith, a freewheeling, fast shooting, footloose player, would often land himself in Karl’s doghouse with his at times mystifying shot selection, his propensity for turnovers, his inability (or unwillingness) to understand and execute Denver’s defensive schemes, and off the basketball court, the negative headlines he grabbed through various mishaps.

More recently, however, he has been keeping his nose clean (if not downright rosy – these days, if you check his twitter page, you will frequently find upbeat messages of positivity and um, dare I say it, inspiration). On the basketball court as well, he seems to have turned a new leaf. While still not an elite defender in the NBA, Karl can at least trust him to deliver spirited and consistent effort, which lately has been paying off in improving steals numbers. And while his assist numbers have not dramatically improved, and he still has the ability to put up some downright crazy shots at times, he is playing in a more controlled mode, doing much better at swinging the ball around as well as keeping his head up to look for and find open teammates, and overall, just playing the role that Karl wants him to play.

The arguments these days for keeping him coming off the bench are more positive: The Nuggets need balance in their scoring, Arron Afflalo has been doing a great job setting a defensive tone as the starting 2 (the game plan Karl is most comfortable with), and Smith himself is reportedly more comfortable and confident playing as a reserve, which allows him more leeway to play his style of ball – while also ultimately playing more minutes than Afflalo and being in the game in clutch time 4th quarter situations.

His role as 6th man has much less to do now with being on a short leash, and more to do with the team maximizing his effectiveness by using him in a role modeled after Manu Ginobli’s: the “fake 6th man” who has the importance of a starter for the team, but is sent in when opponenst play their reserves in order to inflict maximum damage.

Still, when Smith gets a rare start, at times it seems to benefit his game. By getting him involved early, while Chauncey Billups and Carmelo Anthony are both on the floor, the point seems to be driven home to him that he’s playing a supporting role. He can tend to be more controlled and more aware of team ball in those situations. Likewise, his presence forces opponents to be more viligant in their perimeter defense, which spaces the floor very nicely, giving Melo, Nene and Kenyon Martin better opportunities for easier inside scoring.

All in all, there are some pretty good arguments to be made on both sides.

His career numbers, however, give more ammo to those who think he should keep coming off the bench:

Code:
J.R. Smith – Career Per 36 Minutes																			
	MP	FG	FGA	FG%	3P	3PA	3P%	FT	FTA	FT%	ORB	TRB	AST	TOV	Ast/To	STL	BLK	PF	PTS
Starter	36	5.93	14.30	.414	2.14	6.10	.351	2.92	3.80	.769	0.73	3.53	2.72	2.27	1.20	1.10	0.19	2.89	16.92
Reserve	36	7.11	16.38	.434	3.14	8.26	.380	2.74	3.76	.728	0.73	4.13	3.09	2.40	1.29	1.49	0.28	3.31	20.10

Diff as 
 Reserve	1.18	2.07	.020	1.00	2.16	.029	-0.19	-0.04	-.041	0.00	0.60	0.37	0.13	0.09	0.39	0.09	0.41	3.18

Shooting efficiency																			
	efg%	TS%																	
Starter	.489	.530																	
Reserve	.530	.557

In games J.R. Smith has come off the bench, he has rebounded, stolen, and blocked slightly better than when he has started. His assists are a bit higher, too – but since his turnovers are as well, it pretty much amounts to not much difference in his assist/turnover ratio.

The only area in which the stat line shows he performs somewhat better as a starter is free throw percentage.

But none of the above really amounts to much in comparison with his shooting.

We can see that both his effective field goal percentage and total shot percentage take a dip as a starter. Contrary to what might be concluded from that, however, this is not due to him shooting at a higher volume. We can see that both his overall field goal attempts and 3-point attempt per 36 minutes are higher as a reserve.

So the bottom line of the story these numbers tell is that when J.R. Smith comes off the bench, he shoots more often, but he also shoots better, which adds up to giving his overall performance as a reserve the clear efficiency advantage, which in this case expresses itself in the stats as the biggest difference between the two roles: Coming off the bench, he scores 3.18 more points per 36.

Now this doesn’t, of course, mean that he shouldn’t be moved to the starting role in the future – even the fairly near future. He has been a longtime work in progress, but one that has always been on an improving trajectory. A great sign this season is that his best area of improvement is defense, which means that Karl can trust him on the court for longer minutes, and his overall game is becoming much tighter. And also, in my opinion, this is the first season he’s genuinely starting to show signs of some real maturation, which is a critical step in his development as a player.

Additionally, to an extent, these numbers might be taken with a grain of salt. In his career, Smith has played 1138 minutes as a reserve (Star Wars fans will appreciate that) to just 600 minutes as a starter, and so in that sense better performance in the role he’s more experienced at should not come as too much of a surprise.

But given the numbers; given the success of the Nuggets this season so far; given the fact that Afflalo has really proven to be a significant upgrade over Dahntay Jones (so that Nuggets fans can appreciate rather than fear seeing him start ahead of Smith); and given the fact that in his current role J.R. is really starting to hit his stride, apparently sliding into his annual late season groove, I’d argue that at least for the remainder of the season Karl should continue bringing him off the bench.

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