By John Schmeelk
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When people list the Knicks’ problems this year, they usually start with the head coach Mike Woodson, and then immediately bounce to Ray Felton, who has had a rough year at the point-guard position.

Eventually they find their way to J.R. Smith. But since January 1that blame would be misplaced (at least at the offensive end). Smith has played well in 2014, and his improved play is one of the reasons the Knicks are two games over .500 since the calendar flipped to 2014.

In the Knicks’ last 46 games since January 1, the team is 24-22, and Smith’s numbers are better than what he did in what many consider his breakout season of 2012-2013. His shooting percentage is a tick below 44 percent, and his three-point percentage is just above 40 percent. Both of those number are better than they were last year.

If you take out the inordinate amount of heaves he takes from 40-plus feet, those percentages are even higher. There’s also a question of how much his mask that he had to wear after hurting his face affected his shooting. Smith is also averaging just above three assists and 3.5 rebounds per game during that stretch. Those are good numbers for a backup shooting guard and a player on the contract Smith has.

It’s important to remember that Smith did undergo a relatively serious knee surgery in the offseason. He was healthy enough to practice and play just before the start of the regular season, before serving his five-game suspension for drug use. The initial timetable after the surgery could have had him on the sidelines well into November. He came back early and it showed in his performance. Predictably, he played terrible the first two months of the season, but much of those struggles could be traced back to his knee. It kept him off the court and out of practice all summer, and no doubt still limited his physical skills at the start of the year.

Knees don’t often get back to full strength until a year after surgery, and that could also explain some of Smith’s continued deficiencies into the second half of the season. Since January 1, he has still gotten to the line fewer than twice per game, showing his unwillingness to take the ball to the hoop. (He is also shooting just over 65 percent from the stripe.) His defense has also been extremely shaky. When he has been on the floor since June 1, the team is allowing a whopping 109.3 points per 100 possessions. The only regular-rotation guys on the team who are worse are Amar’e Stoudemire and Tim Hardaway, Jr. That is not good company to be in.

But those two facets of his game can be traced directly back to his mobility, explosiveness and quickness — all things that can be adversely affected by a knee injury. This is not meant to be a column making excuses for Smith, but the type of season he has had shouldn’t have been difficult to predict based on his past performance and his offseason surgery.

I also didn’t mention the other off-the-court stuff, like the Twitter comments, the stuff with his brother, the hidden injury, the suspension (the latter two being the worst of them and real black marks) and other distractions he allows to detract from his value. Smith is a flawed player, but when he’s playing like he has the past three months, he can help a team win basketball games if other players are on the floor (like Iman Shumpert) to mask his defensive shortcomings.

With only two years and about $12 million remaining on his contract (the last year being  a player option he might not exercise), Smith’s contract is almost reasonable by NBA standards and shouldn’t be unmovable if the Knicks want to ship out his 2015 salary this offseason.

All in all, the offseason contract has not been the level of disaster portrayed by most people in the media, or by the fans. If people were expecting more than what Smith gave the team this year on the floor, they were probably expecting too much. Smith is what he is — bad shot selection, distractions and all. It has been more of the same this year.

Schmeelk’s Snippets

– Atlanta’s game on Friday night against Cleveland is a pivotal one for them. It is one of the games left on their schedule that they “should” be able to win, but if they lose it makes the Knicks’ chances that much greater to get into the postseason. Cleveland is also hunting for a late playoff berth, as it is just two games behind the Hawks and Knicks for a playoff spot.

You can follow me on Twitter @Schmeelk for everything Knicks, Giants, Yankees and the world of sports. 

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