When the Cleveland Cavaliers got J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert from the New York Knicks in January, it was Shumpert, not Smith, who Cleveland’s brass was targeting. Smith was supposed to be the throw-in no one wanted.
No one, apparently, aside from LeBron James. ESPN’s Brian Windhorst said on a recent BS Report podcast that James was not only open to the possibility of playing with Smith, but believed he could be the more important part of the deal (transcription via RealGM):
“He loves J.R. Smith. He was the guy who pushed for that trade. The Cavs were trying to get Shumpert; that’s what the conversations were and of course the Knicks were saying ‘we’ll give you Shumpert, but you have to take J.R.’ They went to LeBron and he said ‘No, you get J.R. and if you get Shumpert with him that’s great.'”
Turns out, LeBron was right. During his 40 games in Cleveland, Smith has so far been a revelation for the Cavaliers.
Despite his struggles with the Knicks early in the season, when his 40/36/48 line (FG%/3PT%/TS%) was shooting more holes into the side of an already sinking ship, Smith has turned things around playing alongside Bron Bron in his post-Melo life. The shooting guard is thriving, putting up a 43/39/56 line while enjoying playing alongside James, with whom Smith was friends before being traded to Cleveland. Getting to play on a winning team with the best player in the world is a pretty good situation typically, and the improvement in Smith’s attitude has been obvious.
Smith’s role has also been more solidified in Cleveland, and he has done a much better job of filling that role than his predecessor, Dion Waiters. Not unlike Earl Smith III was himself at one time, Waiters was a woodenheaded scorer with blinders on, failing to improve his catch-and-shoot abilities on a team that sorely needed him to become a catch-and-shoot player. Waiters had middle-school body language, a poor sense of the moment and shot selection that defies the idea that all people have brains––essentially, no concept of how to play his role on a championship team.
With Smith, the Cavs have exactly what they want. An absurd 64 percent of his shot attempts with Cleveland have been 3-pointers, and most of those have been of the catch-and-shoot variety, which means fewer wild drives to the hoop or inefficient pull-up jumpers off the dribble. J.R. has embraced his role as a straight floor-stretcher, and it has paid off. The Cavs have outscored opponents by 8.4 points per 100 possessions with Smith on the court, compared to just 3.1 points per 100 possessions when he’s off the court, per Basketball-Reference.com. Meanwhile, Waiters has continued to flounder and underachieve in his attempts to find a role with the Thunder.
The question now is whether or not Smith can keep up this performance into the postseason. Trying to predict the ebbs and flows of a streaky shooter like Smith is impossible, but with J.R., the nightlife effect is real, and the Cavs are hoping that he’ll be able to stave off temptation until after the season.
What is the nightlife effect? If you know Smith, you probably know his reputation, but just for good measure, take a look at the numbers (via Basketball-Reference.com):
J.R. Swish, not exactly playing up to his Sunday finest. In the NBA, Sunday games are typically earlier than on weekdays, and for the general public, Saturday nights are typically later nights than on weekdays. For Smith, Saturday nights could be VERY late sometimes, and the lore of J.R. in NYC has been storied brilliantly at this point. Even Smith himself admitted that the boredom of playing in Cleveland has contributed to his increased focus on the game, especially on the weekends.
In the Eastern Conference, the Cavs might have to play some combination of Miami/Brooklyn, Chicago and Atlanta, all of which are a bit different from Cleveland, so obviously there has been some worry that Smith could slide back into temptation.
It’s certainly an interesting consideration, and given Smith’s history, not entirely misplaced; he hasn’t even played an average playoff series in a good six years.
In that sense, James’s friendship could end up being a saving grace for the Cavs’ seemingly perilous bet that Smith can stay steady. Playing with James has almost always elevated his teammates’ play in the past, and J.R. has been no exception. Being that he has a strong relationship with James, it seems unlikely that he’d want to do anything silly to impede the chances of the championship on a LeBron-led squad, especially since LeBron keeps the team so close-knit even after the games.
Still, a bet on J.R. Smith is a bet on J.R. Smith, so hopefully the influence of LeBron really is something special. If not, the Cavs at least still have Shumpert.