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J.R. Smith doesn’t want to come off the bench anymore

Jun 10, 2014, 10:03 AM EDT

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J.R. Smith started a majority of his games as a rookie, but ever since – with the New Orleans/Oklahoma City Hornets, Denver Nuggets and New York Knicks – he’s been pigeonholed as an off-the-bench scorer. The role has suited him well. He won Sixth Man of the Year in 2012-13, and he’s received a vote for the award in seven seasons.

The only problem: Smith wants to start – and has for a while.

Before the 2012-13 season, Smith explained his frustrations with being labeled a bench player. That year, Mike Woodson started 15 (!) players but brought Smith off the bench in all 80 of his games.

Again before the 2013-14 season, Smith reiterated his desire to start. Woodson acquiesced a bit and started Smith 37 games of his 74 games, including a very effective stretch. But that’s still 37 games off the bench, probably more than Smith would have preferred

With Woodson out, Smith sees his opening.

The problem is Smith’s production really dipped most of this season. If Smith continues to regress at anywhere near that same rate, it won’t be a choice about balancing the rotation. He’ll no longer be worthy of starting on an average team.

The good news for Smith? The Knicks are not an average team.

They have just four guards with guaranteed contracts for next season: Raymond Felton, Pablo Prigioni, Iman Shumpert and Tim Hardaway Jr.

Felton is facing felony gun charges, and Phil Jackson might trade him. Either factor could lead to Prigioni playing more point guard rather than as a secondary ball-handler – if the 37-year-old can handle it. If Carmelo Anthony leaves, Shumpert would probably play more small forward. Hardaway is promising and might soon be better than Smith if he isn’t already, but it would be easy to build a case Smith remains the better player. (And if Hardaway is better, maybe Smith will start for the same reason he came off the bench all those years – so the rotation is balanced.)

All things considered, the path to Smith starting at shooting guard is pretty clear.

If he can stay out of his own way.

Smith got away with quite a bit under Woodson, and new Knicks coach Derek Fisher might not be so forgiving.

Fisher’s top assignment is selling Melo on the Knicks’ future, but handling a locker room full of veterans – many of whom, including Smith, are highly paid – will be another challenge. Maybe Smith begrudgingly accepts a bench role, as he did for Woodson. Maybe Smith makes Fisher’s life a little more difficult than that. With Smith, it really could go either way.

Welcome to New York, Fish. The players are already testing you.

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