Who’s Better: Tyreke Evans Or J.R. Smith?

If we’re classifying NBA players by their offensive style of play, you couldn’t find too many players further apart than Tyreke Evans and J.R. Smith. Take away the cliched responses that they’re both offensive-happy players who only want to watch themselves dribble and shoot and you have Smith, a career sixth man who can stroke it from deep but sometimes struggles to penetrate off the bounce, a guy who’s always been better than advertised as a defender… and Evans, a player with star potential who can’t shoot at all but loves to breakdown any defense in the league, and a guy who has the physical attributes to be a really solid defender.

One plays on a lottery team. One plays on a contender. But both received new contracts this summer.

It’ll be interesting next year to see Evans take on a Manu Ginobili role in New Orleans. Reportedly, he’s fine with that, and excited. It’ll be just as fun to watch Smith try to reclaim some semblance of good vibes from New York after his horrendous playoff performance. If everything goes according to plan, these two could be battling for the Sixth Man of the Year.

But who’s better: Evans or Smith? We argue. You decide.

*** *** ***

Quiet and reserved, Tyreke Evans is in many ways the perfect foil for the brash, precocious J.R. Smith. At first glance, there are striking similarities between the two. Both are 6-6 and about 220 pounds, they both (generally) play the two-guard position, they boast a remarkably similar Player Efficiency Rating (Evans at 18.16 compared to Smith’s 17.67), and they each just signed lucrative, multi-year contracts with their respective teams. After wallowing in obscurity and futility in Sacramento, Evans has earned a fresh start in New Orleans, while the Knicks continue to believe that Smith is a key piece of their ever-evolving championship puzzle.

If you watched Smith and the Knicks during the playoffs this year, you learned all you need to know about why this is a fool’s folly. For his career, Smith has averaged 13.2 points, 2.1 assists and 3.2 rebounds, on 42 percent shooting, and to be fair, he had one of his best individual seasons by far in 2012-2013, when his scoring spiked to 18.1 points per game and he showed a marked improvement on the defensive end, earning himself his first-ever Sixth Man of the Year award and helping the Knicks to a two-seed in the Eastern Conference Playoffs. But Smith played horrendously during the postseason, shooting just 33 percent from the field, mostly because of hideous shot selection and either an unwillingness or an inability to do anything else but keep shooting.

With Evans, there are plenty of reasons to be ambivalent about his future. During his first four seasons, he averaged 17.5 points, 4.8 rebounds and 4.8 assists, while shooting 44 percent from the field, which are respectable numbers (and several notches above Smith’s career averages to date), but he hasn’t turned out to be the perennial All-Star candidate we thought he would after his legendary rookie campaign when he averaged 20 points, five rebounds, and five assists per game, joining Michael Jordan, Oscar Robertson and LeBron James as the only other players ever to accomplish that feat during their rookie seasons. To say that that puts him in elite company would be an understatement.

The problem with that outstanding rookie season was that it set our expectations too high, so anything less than All-Star-caliber, MVP-like performances seems like a letdown. True, his raw offensive numbers have declined since his rookie season, but this overlooks the fact that he’s improved his game in several key areas. Most notably, his accuracy from behind the arc jumped from 20 percent in 2011-2012 to 33 percent this past season, which isn’t too far behind Smith’s 2013 regular season average of 35 percent (note: Smith’s accuracy from three-point land nosedived to 27 percent during the playoffs this year).

And let’s not ignore the fact that J.R. “Don’t Call Me Earl” Smith is prone to general boneheadedness, on and off the court. He got himself ejected from Game 3 of the Celtics/Knicks series and never really recovered after that. Just about the only thing he’s better at is social media blunders.

Evans, on the other hand, has been the consummate professional, despite all the turmoil in Sacramento the past few years with the seemingly endless game of musical coaching chairs, the uncertainty surrounding the sale and relocation of the team, the comical levels of mismanagement on the part of the Maloofs, and, of course, the delightfully-dysfunctional DeMarcus Cousins. He’s never once demanded a trade, never once questioned his increasingly diminished role within their offensive schemes, and despite all the chaos and tumult, despite the team refusing to renew his contract, still would have preferred to remain in Sacramento. It’s the type of loyalty that’s rare in an era when teams and players are so often driven single-mindedly by economics or the opportunity to chase that elusive championship.

Evans has been shuffled around at different positions for the past couple of seasons – point guard, shooting guard, small forward – but that only shows he’s a more versatile player than Smith, who is prone to tunnel vision on offense. Evans has been playing more and more off-the-ball lately, something that seems almost incomprehensible to Smith, who is a notorious ball-stopper. In Smith’s defense, he is certainly capable of going off for 30 points on any given night and being an absolute game-changer, but the streakiness and inconsistency we saw during the playoffs make him more of a liability than an asset.

For Evans, a fresh start in New Orleans under the tutelage of Monty Williams should offer him the opportunity to prove that the flashes of brilliance we saw during his rookie season weren’t an aberration. At the age of 27, we’ve likely seen everything J.R. Smith is capable of. He is who he is, and he’s not going to change for anybody. The same cannot be said for Tyreke Evans, who at 23 is still working out all the kinks in his game while entering the prime of his career.

Hit page 2 for the J.R. Smith argument…

We’re all prisoners of the moment, so it’s easy to look at J.R. Smith’s numbers from last season’s disappointing playoff run (he shot under 40 percent in all eight games after being suspended for Game 4 against Boston) and chop six points off his NBA 2K13 rating. But thankfully, for once, the Knicks saw the big picture. They recently gave Smith $25 million after Earl turned in the best season of his career.

Last year, the Sixth Man of the Year averaged 18.1 points, 5.3 rebounds and 1.3 steals. He was New York’s second-leading option of offense, at times carrying the second unit for a squad that missed Amar’e Stoudemire and Iman Shumpert for long portions of the season, while playing offensive garbage cans like Pablo Prigioni and Tyson Chandler. Tyreke Evans is a fantastic offensive talent who looked like a future star from the minute he stepped into a NBA arena. But at least until Evans develops his off-ball skills and jumper, Smith is still the player I’d rather have if I’m building a contender.

For all the complaints about how Smith is a low-percentage shooter without much of a game outside of chucking 25-footers and dunking, he actually finished with, by far, the lowest turnover percentage (7.7) of any shooting guard in the top 10 in PER. Smith might not always make the shots, and his assist rate was decidedly average among the same group of players, but that has more to do with his role than anything else. Smith is a gunner and as a sixth man for a contender, the only real requirement a gunner needs is to actually get the shots up (a vastly underrated skill… I’m being serious). Smith does that. You can’t say the same for Evans. His spin move and Euro step are sick, and unless you play five feet off him, he’s getting to the rack. But that still can’t hide the fact that his turnover ratio was over 10, even on a team that began to take the ball away from him more often in 2012-13.

Smith is the better rebounder (he’s also better than D-Wade, Kobe, Harden and Ginobili too), the better long-range shooter and, perhaps surprisingly, the better defender. New York gave up three less points per 100 possessions with him on the floor. Evans, despite wielding a ridiculous 6-11 wingspan, had virtually no effect on Sacramento’s team defense.

That all factors into my final point: if you’re looking to build a championship team, which player would you rather have? You can start just by their contracts this summer. Smith is a proven commodity. You know what you’re getting for $25 million. Not all of it is what you want, but hey, the man is consistent. Give him that, at least. On the other side, Evans is still only 23 years old, and because of the illusion of potential, the Pelicans are paying him $44 million to play the same exact role. A nearly $20 million difference.

Plus, in the playoffs, every big-moment player has specific qualities that stand out. You must be able to shoot, and if you’re a team’s second option, you must be able to get up shots (there’s a difference). Smith can do that, whether off the bounce for a pull-up J or from 30 feet away. Evans is super shaky anywhere outside of the painted area, and in the playoffs, defenses are too good to let you isolate, take five dribbles and then spin into the lane with two help defenders rotating over. Last season, Evans shot 27 percent from 3-9 feet, made only 0.1 shots a game from 10-15 feet, and shot 31 percent from 16-23 feet, according to HoopData. J.R. Smith was better across the board. Shoot, Smith was even better at finishing at the rim (66 to 63 percent), which is Evans’ strongest attribute.

Yeah, the Knick swingman didn’t show it during the playoffs last spring, but postseason-caliber defenses will always take away your first option. If New Orleans sneaks into the playoffs next spring, Evans better be prepared to face defenders giving him five or six feet of open space.

Since they’re both average-to-decent defenders (and Smith is actually a little better), I’ll take the guy with a more diversified offensive game. At the moment, neither player seems prepared to be a difference-maker on a championship squad. But right now, Smith is a more malleable talent.

Who do you think is better?

Follow Jamie on Twitter at @WinoCarpenter.

Follow Sean on Twitter at @SEANesweeney.

Follow Dime on Twitter at @DimeMag.

Become a fan of Dime Magazine on Facebook HERE.