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Short-Handed Cavaliers Need J.R. Smith to Step Up

Justin Ford/USA TODAY Sports

For 13 years, Cleveland Cavaliers fans have become witnesses at the throne of four-time MVP and future Hall of Famer LeBron James (save for his four-year stint in Miami).

However, the Cleveland faithful are rapidly becoming acquainted with another hardwood phenomenon: the maddening inconsistency of one Earl Joseph “J.R.” Smith.

Since his arrival in Northeast Ohio back in January, Smith teased spectators by flashing both the electric scoring ability that helped make him the 2012-13 Sixth Man of the Year and the face-palming shot selection that contributed to his exile from three different teams.

Last season, after being acquired from the New York Knicks in a three-team trade that sent fellow infamous chucker Dion Waiters to the Oklahoma City Thunder, Smith averaged 12.7 points on 42.5 percent shooting from the field in 46 games with the Cavs. He also converted 39 percent of his threes despite launching a career-high 7.3 per game. That momentum carried into most of the postseason, as he contributed 12.8 points per contest while shooting 40.3 percent from the floor and 35.9 percent from behind the arc in the playoffs.

Under the bright lights of the NBA Finals though, Smith’s fire was extinguished by the combination of a stingy Golden State Warriors defense and having to compensate for so many key injuries in the Cavaliers’ lineup. He attempted 12.8 field goals per game and shot a putrid 31.2 percent from the field, including knocking down just 29.5 percent of his 8.5 treys over the course of a six-game series.

Smith’s cold streak carried over into this season. After being re-signed as the potential final piece to Cleveland’s championship puzzle in late-August, Smith “rewarded” fans as well as the Cavs’ brass by averaging a career-low 7.4 points per game. He’s shooting just 34.3 percent from the field and 30 percent from downtown.

Head coach David Blatt claims injuries are the cause for Smith’s slow start and that the 30-year-old will eventually find his groove, per Chris Fedor of Northeast Ohio Media Group:

“He’s one of the guys that didn’t get a full training camp and he didn’t have the opportunity to physically prepare himself in the same way due to the hamstring issues he was having and the foot issues he was having. I think that’s held him back to a certain extent. He’s working and he will catch his rhythm I believe.”

Thanks to the scoring trio of James, Kevin Love and Mo Williams, the Cavs have been able to endure Smith’s struggles and still lead the Eastern Conference with an 8-3 record. However, with Kyrie Irving (knee) and Iman Shumpert (wrist) still weeks away from returning to the court, Cleveland’s short-handed backcourt could use a boost from Smith sooner rather than later. As of right now, he’s being outplayed by 35-year-old Richard Jefferson (8.0 points, 45.6 percent from the field, 41.7 percent from three), which makes you wonder what Smith’s role will be if he can’t get his act together before the Cavs return to full strength.

On the bright side, Smith is making strides on the defensive end. His defensive rating of 102 points allowed per 100 possessions is his best mark since the 2011-12 season, per Basketball-Reference. Opponents are also shooting 5.1 percent worse from the three-point line with Smith defending than they do normally.

Still, Smith was brought in to provide a scoring spark and give them another dangerous shooter on the outside. Last season’s output is proof he’s capable of being a quality offensive weapon, but he’s been unable to sustain that same drive throughout his career. The Cavs have survived with Smith stumbling out of the gate, but the time for the team to get its money’s worth is rapidly approaching.

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