J.R. Smith thought he had done everything necessary to become the Knicks' starting shooting guard coming into this season, but Mike Woodson had other plans for him.
Woodson wanted Smith to be the Knicks' catalyst off the bench, hoping it would lead to the Sixth Man of the Year Award. Smith made a strong case for it -- and the Knicks were the beneficiaries.
Smith should be the NBA's top sixth man after playing a key role as the Knicks earned 54 wins and their first Atlantic Division title in 19 years.
Smith, who scored 15 points in the Knicks' Game 1 win yesterday, went from being enigmatic and somewhat disruptive for most of his nine-year career to the Knicks' most reliable player after Carmelo Anthony.
That's saying something, given that Smith was very upset that Woodson didn't make him the starting shooting guard. But instead of stewing, he embraced his role.
Every night, Woodson and the Knicks knew what to expect from Smith. His effort was consistent, and he averaged career highs in points (18.1), rebounds (5.3) and minutes (33.5). His scoring average was the highest of any reserve and fifth among shooting guards. He hit two game-winning shots at the buzzer and had at least 20 points 29 times and at least 30 points seven times. He had eight double-digit scoring and rebounding games.
"I would be very surprised, very surprised [if he didn't win],'' Raymond Felton said. "I feel like he's got the numbers. He's played well throughout the whole year. He's gotten better as the season got on."
Smith's competition is Clippers guard and former Knick Jamal Crawford and Oklahoma City sub Kevin Martin. Crawford was the front-runner early, but Smith's strong finish makes him the leading candidate.
He averaged 23.5 points in the last 16 games he played, helping the Knicks to 15 wins.
Speaking of MVP, the envelopes, please:
Winner: James is the best player in basketball, does it on both ends and spearheaded the NBA's second-longest winning streak ever. He led Miami to the NBA's best record, lifting his game and his teammates against opponents gunning for the defending champs.
Coach of the YearWoodson, George Karl, Tom Thibodeau, Frank Vogel, Lionel Hollins, Erik Spoelstra, Kevin McHale, Gregg Popovich and P.J. Carlesimo all deserve consideration. Woodson got the injury-depleted Knicks the East's No. 2 seed. But Thibodeau won 46 -- and went 4-0 against the Knicks -- without former MVP Derrick Rose for the entire season.
Winner: Karl guided the Nuggets to 57 wins and the No. 3 seed without an All-Star in the tougher Western Conference.
Rookie of the YearPortland point guard Damian Lillard should win unanimously. He led rookies in points (19.0), assists (6.5) and minutes (38.6) per game and showed he can be a franchise-type player/point guard.
Most Improved You can make cases for Jrue Holiday, Paul George, Omer Asik, Jimmy Butler, Greivis Vasquez, Nikola Vucevic and Larry Sanders.
Winner: George became an All-Star and helped Indiana become the No. 3 seed in the East without All-Star Danny Granger for most of the season.
James, Serge Ibaka, Tony Allen, Joakim Noah, Chris Paul, Marc Gasol and Tim Duncan are the candidates.
Winner: James controls the games on the defensive end, too. His size, quickness, length and strength have allowed him to guard any position and shut people down.
Executive of YearAnother tough call. Rockets general manager Daryl Morey, Knicks GM Glen Grunwald, Nets GM Billy King and the Clippers' Gary Sacks all made moves that vastly improved their teams.
Winner: Grunwald stocked the roster with experienced veterans and older rookies who helped the Knicks to their best season since last century. For that, he edges Morey.