J.R. In the Bubble? He’s Been Here Before

J.R. Smith had a productive 2017 NBA Finals. He led the team (Cavaliers) in three-point shooting (58.1%), offensive rating (135), efg (77%). He was third on the team (LeBron James, Tristan Thompson) in field goal percentage (54.1%). But he was miserable defensively, incrementally better than Kyle Korver but barely (125 defensive rating for Smith, 126 for Korver).  Smith wasn’t paid for who he was able to stop. He has always been an offensive specialist with a healthy ego who can rotate and drain open shots. Plus, from time to time, he can get to the rim. J.R. competes. But following his very productive 2017 NBA Finals,  the 2017-18 season changed everything. J.R. couldn’t stop his career from crashing.

It was a summer thing that had fans salivating. The Chicago Bulls paid off Dwyane Wade and Cleveland signed him to partner with his best friend LeBron James. So, the season that J.R. was anticipating went south real fast. J.R. was pushed to the bench. Everything Earl Joseph Smith III had worked for was slowly coming apart.

In a perfect world, the presence of Wade wouldn’t have bothered J.R. who won a title in 2016, three years after Wade’s last title. J.R.’s game was different than Wade’s. For much of his career, J.R. has been a knockdown 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 as he did after winning a title and just be himself, damn protocol?

But no such luck with Wade int town. J.R. was subdued. It was his own private bubble.

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 J.R. was doing. J.R. struggled. Although he was in the game 30 minutes, it was still abysmal. 40% shooting. 37% from three. He couldn’t even hit the 70% free throw mark. Mediocre offensive rating, career-worst defensive rating. A PER that was so bad, only 12 NBA players had a worse PER. He was the 98th ranked shooting guard. (Real Plus-Minus).

His name was thrown out there in trades but frankly, no one but the Cavs wanted J.R. His salary was too much to take on at his age and his one dimension just wasn’t worth it. GM’s have always though J.R. performed because LeBron squeezed every ounce of talent and competitive juice out of J.R. Anywhere else, average J.R. might be the rule of the day.

J.R.’s return to the NBA feels imminent and the Lakers are as big a stage as you can get. However, J.R. in the bubble makes people wonder. Will he conform? The native non-conformist? When he was a teammate of Dwyane Wade’s he didn’t have much room for mistakes. The moment J.R. was out his groove, here came Wade, the savior. 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. was happy again. At 34 and counting, he’s ready for a re-do. He gets one more chance to make up for his brain freeze in the 2018 NBA Finals.  He has no pressure, not really. He hasn’t played in two years and so if he stinks no one will be surprised. What he has going for him is his size. If he can resurrect his shooting stroke after being off so long it will be a Lakers win.

17 years ago J.R. Smith was a high schooler who was a first-round draft pick of the Hornets. He has played 26,000 minutes in his career as a member of four NBA teams. He’s only missed out on the playoffs 3 times out of his 15 years.

The once immature 19-year-old survived the NBA, a place where you need a skill. He has one. Scoring. And perhaps he can survive a layoff and a pandemic to win his second title.

He has grown up. He once said about his NBA carousel of teams (New Orleans, Denver, China, New York, Cleveland) “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 Lakers are going to finish off this Covid-19 comeback season, 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 Lakers a tough team to knock off.