Last Friday when word got out of JR Spliff Smith’s suspension, I had a bizarre reaction: glee. Why? Well, earlier last season when I wrote of how I was wrong about JR, I really did think he turned a new leaf from being the shot-crazy headache that has defined his career. As any Knick fan can tell you, he certainly didn’t cease from being a shot-crazy headache but there was something different about JR. This was a new JR. A JR that swore off gallivanting through clubs each night. A JR that took his coach’s words to heart about pulling up his pants and being a role model to his young fans. And most importantly, a JR that channeled his frustration of not being a starter into embracing it and becoming the NBA’s 6th Man of the Year. Turns out I was wrong for thinking he made the leap.
As the year went on and the JR highlights swelled up from monstrous dunks to game winning buckets, fans quickly fell in love with him and adopted him as a sort of spiritual equal of another beloved headache none other than John Starks. With Starks obviously being my favorite Knick of all-time (just look around) I quickly joined the chorus of JR praise. But then something funny happened to Smith as the year ended. His numbers were at an all-time high and his campaign for the 6th Man award was locked up, but his off the court episodes started to become erratic again.
The days after he won his award consisted of a wild collection of stories and pictures on Twitter that showed a never-ending celebration of achieving that goal. That’s fine and all, but this was during the most important time of the year playoffs. Of course players are entitled to their own private lives, but when sites like Mediatakeout.com and even Rihanna begin to tell you to get focused, you know trouble is afoot. We all know how JR’s season ended and with the Knicks being the Knicks, no one was surprised to see him awarded with an $18 Million contract even after completely imploding during a disappointing Knick playoff run. This is sort of the Knick-way I suppose.
Like many Knick fans, I felt cheated. With the East as open as it was last season, Knick fans knew the window to get to the finals was never wider, and we blew it. John Starks also had an infamous post-season implosion of course but it was a single game in the NBA Finals, not a continuous loop of bone-headed of increasingly bad off court decisions. It was at this moment I knew comparisons to Starks and Smith had to stop. The difference between the two is that unlike Smith, not even Starks’ biggest critic would deny his passion for giving it his all. Much like Woody does to JR, Riley also gave Starks a green light to shoot the Knicks in and out of games, but with Starks, you knew he cared about a Knicks W more than anyone else on the court. When JR Smith won the 6th man award last year, it was almost as if he was suddenly off the clock and free to go on vacation.
Twitter wasn’t around when Starks was on the Knicks but you’ll be hard pressed to find a Knick fan that would think Starks would have had the same approach to the playoffs as JR displayed last spring. Losing to the Pacers didn’t really seem to matter much to JR as it is. His next goal was getting a contract and after he did, he proceeded to go on with one of the most colorful Twitter feeds out there. When pictures surfaced of JR smoking a blunt (there’s actually a few of them out there), my reaction went from amusement to frustration because it immediately reminded me of how serious he takes job of being an athlete in perhaps the most PR sensitive league in America. To say the least, it’s not a good way to kick off the start of his new 4-year contract, especially with surgery already sidelining him at the beginning of this coming season.
There’s also just one more difference between Starks and Smith I think is important to bring up, and it’s a big one. JR is a hell of a lot more talented than Starks was. I’ll be the first to admit that. When JR looks back at his career will it have peaked at his 6th Man award? Is it all downhill from here? He can either end up like a Ricky Davis or someone like a Chris Webber who learned much later in his career what it meant to “grow-up.” Woodson was supposed to be the driving force of this change that coaches want to see happen but it looks like his influence was wildly overestimated. At the time of this writing JR hasn’t tweeted anything in 5 days. Is it a stipulation of his suspension, or is this a cathartic moment for JR? Fool me once JR…