J.R. Smith worked hard over the summer to be in shape on day one of the 2017-18 NBA season. Stats wise, J.R. had a good NBA Finals leading the team in three point shooting, offensive rating, efg%. He was third on the team (LeBron James, Tristan Thompson) in field goal percentage. He was miserable defensively, incremently better than Kyle Korver but barely (125 defensive rating for Smith, 126 for Korver). But Smith isn’t being paid for what he does as a defender, which isn’t much. He is an offensive specialist with a healthy ego who can rotate off of LeBron and drain open shots plus, from time to time, get to the rim. His Finals was a prelude to his summer work and what was supposed to be an even better season. J.R. competes. But in one unexpected moment the season changed for J.R. The Bulls paid off Dwyane Wade and the season that J.R. was anticipating went south real fast. Wade was coming to Cleveland to be with his friend LeBron. J.R. would be pushed to the bench. Everything he had worked for was slowly coming apart.
In a perfect world, the presence of Wade wouldn’t bother J.R. who won a title in 2016, three years after Wade’s last title. J.R.’s game was different than Wade’s. He’s a knock down three point shooter who moves without the ball and can get to the cup. He has that J.R. iconoclast thing going on, the antithesis of the cookie cutter NBA boring player. He’s a big fan favorite as he creates dramatic anticipation. Is he going to whip off his shirt like he did after winning a title and just be himself, damn protocol?
But no such luck this season. J.R. was subdued.
First J.R. went to the bench. Then he was in as a starter when Wade deferred. It didn’t matter though. A future Hall of Famer [Wade] was watching everything he was doing. J.R. had the worst year in more than a decade. Although he was in the game 30 minutes, it was still abysmal. 39% shooting. 36% from three. He couldn’t even hit the 70% free throw mark. Horrible offensive rating, career worst defensive rating. A PER that is so bad, only 22 NBA players have a worse PER. He is the 58th ranked shooting guard. (Real Plus-Minus).
His name was thrown out there in trades but frankly, no one but the Cavs want J.R. His salary is too much to take on at his age and his one dimension isn’t worth it, plus GM’s think he performs because LeBron squeezes every ounce of talent and competitive juice out of him. Anywhere else, average J.R. might be the rule of the day.
This is average J.R. He devolves as the quarters go on. 47% in the first. 39% in the second. 33% in the third. And a tragic 35% in the 4th. With less than three minutes left in the quarter, he is shooting 33%.
Here was the problem in a nutshell, even with an arrogant J.R. He didn’t have much room for error with Wade on the bench. The moment J.R. was out his groove, here comes Wade. Wade wasn’t much better than J.R. but it still messed with J.R.’s head, how easy he could be replaced.
And then the Cavs really stunk. And Wade was traded. And J.R. is happy again. Since the trade J.R. looks like he used to.
Truth be told, J.R. started being J.R. again a week ago. The Cavs were horrible in Orlando but J.R. was making threes and draining jumpers. Against the Wolves, he shot 50% from three and took the second most threes of the year, draining 6 out of 11. He missed one shot in Boston Garden, a Cavs test with the younger, more athletic additions (Jordan Clarkson, Rodney Hood, Larry Nance Jr., George Hill). His 85% field goal mark was a 7 year high. He continued his sharpshoting on Tuesday in Oklahoma. 60%, 66% from three. At the right time, J.R. has woken up.
He has no pressure. Rodney Hood, his backup, is a young and hungry player, very athletic and can drain an open shot. J.R. isn’t better than Hood but he isn’t worse and Rodney Hood has no NBA cache. For the first time in a while, J.R. is playing free and the Cavs are better for it.
J.R. will be 33 years old in September. He is nearing his 1,000 NBA game, a mark he should hit next season. The high schooler who was a first round draft pick of the Hornets has played 25,000 minutes in his career as a member of four NBA teams. He’s only missed out on the playoffs 4 times out of his 14 years.
The once immature 19 year old has survived the NBA and stuck in a league where you need a skill. He has one. Scoring.
His maturity has led him to not throw shade at his former teammates, who are elsewhere. “I’m not going to bad mouth anybody. It’s just the fit wasn’t right. There’s nothing wrong with that. I was in places that I didn’t fit. It works out like that.”
If the Cavs are going to complete this comeback, they are going to need the new J.R. to be the old J.R. Confident. Scoring the ball. Happy.
Happy J.R. makes the Cavs look like contenders.