What to do with J.R.?

As I mentioned in my recap of the Nuggets win over the Hornets, I was very displeased with the way the Nuggets played on offense.  They were far too perimeter oriented and did not do enough to work to earn good shots.  As you can imagine, J.R. Smith and too perimeter oriented go hand in hand.

Smith is one of the players who has the athleticism and skills to make the Hornets pay for their hard doubling of Carmelo Anthony.  Sadly, he was all too ready to play into the Hornets hands by launching threes instead of taking advantage of the quickness advantage Smith had over any Hornet who tried to guard him.  J.R. was on the court for 12 minutes, but still managed to launch five threes.

J.R. was not the first guard off the bench in the second half as Karl sent in Ty Lawson to play with Chuancey Billups.  When Smith entered the game to start the fourth quarter, the spot where Lawson usually relieves Billups, he turned the ball over and attempted three three pointers, one of which he did convert.  Karl rightly yanked him and reinserted Chauncey and J.R. started to the bench and then changed direction and headed to the locker room.

I can understand Smith’s frustration.  He has been mired in perhaps the worst shooting slump of his career.  So far in the month of January he is shooting only 25.4% on threes.  If he does not improve his conversion rate January 2010 will be the worst of any single month since he became a Nugget in 2006.  In fact, J.R. is posting his poorest statistical season as a Nugget.  His shooting percentages are down across the board, his turnover rate is the highest of his career and his assist rate is down.  Even with all of his struggles, his usage rate is a career high.  All in all his PER of 12.76 is lower than every season he has played save his rookie campaign as a Hornet.

We all know Smith is too good of a player to put forth an entire season like this.  At some point he will absolutely explode.  The problem is, he knows that when his shot starts falling, it might not stop for a while and he is eager for that day to come.  As a result he is chucking threes every chance he gets in anticipation of the incendiary streak that is undoubtedly around the corner.  When he struggles against a former team, in a game that is close and his team could really use a good night from him, and on top of it sees his role limited and minutes yanked I can understand why he would be upset.  The frustration that is piling up will undoubtedly boil over and that is what appeared to happen when J.R. left the bench and went to the locker room.

The question is how do you reach out to a player who is a key component to your team’s ability to be a contender, is probably very down on himself and has displayed a  sensitivity to criticism?  At this point, the Nuggets are in high level discussions where they are deciding whether or not to suspend J.R.

It is not an easy decision, but as for me, I would suspend him.  The Nuggets have proven that they have the courage to sit a player down when they benched Carmelo last season for refusing to leave a game in Indiana.  If you recall, Carmelo was mired in a bad shooting slump of his own and had finally hit a couple of big shots when his time to rest came around.  Understandably, Melo wanted to ride the hot streak he though he had found.  However, he did so at the expense of his teammates, Kenyon Martin had to sit down because Melo did not want to, and he displayed that he was in charge and not the coach.

J.R. did not cost a teammate playing time, nor did he refuse to follow direction from the coach.  What he did do is put himself ahead of the team by leaving his teammates, even if just for a few minutes as he was back on the bench well before the end of the fourth quarter, and that cannot be tolerated.  J.R. must learn that the coaches, front office and his teammates care about him and they need him.  No matter how rough things are going, no one or nothing is bigger than the team.  If the Nuggets are better off with J.R. playing 12 minutes, then J.R. has to be OK with that.

I have always been a fan of J.R. ever since I saw him play in summer league as a rookie.  He is immensely talented and I honestly believe he has all-star level talent.  His mental state has come a long way since he first arrived in Denver as has his game.  Even so, he still has lessons that he has not learned and his behavior when being removed from the game on Saturday proves it.

With Carmelo Anthony already ruled out of Monday night’s contest with the Charlotte Bobcats, it will be tempting to let J.R. skirt by and play.  I hope the Nuggets take the road less traveled and make the tough decision to demonstrate no player is bigger than the team.

Last season when Carmelo was suspended the Nuggets went out and lost a difficult game to the Detroit Pistons with him on the sideline, but Melo served his sentence and then bounced back and played his best month of the season.  The Nuggets went on to post a 15-6 record to close out the regular season and as we all remember finished second in the conference.

I am not saying if Denver suspends J.R. he will bust out of his slump or it guarantees great things will happen for the Nuggets upon his return, just that making the right decision, especially when it is the most difficult, can help forge perseverance and strength.

Suspensions do not have to be negative experiences, and J.R. is no stranger to having to sit out, but what comes of a suspension is on the player.  Smith needs to be told that he was wrong, there is a consequence for his behavior and that he can use it to become a better player, teammate and person.

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