J.R. Smith was supposed to be an Iman Shumpert tax.
When the Cleveland Cavaliers traded for Smith and Shumpert in a three-team deal three weeks ago, conventional wisdom was that Shumpert was the key piece the Cavs were getting in the deal. He was the 3-and-D prototype with potential that was going to shore up the Cavs' perimeter defense and provide spacing in the Cavs' offense.
Smith, meanwhile, was considered a possible cancer in the locker room, and a definite cancer on the floor - Dion Waiters' spirit animal, a guy who bogs down the offense with isolation, makes dumb decisions with passing, and is a negative defensively. Sure, he won Sixth Man of the Year in 2012-2013, but that was considered by many to be an outlier season.
So far, however, it's been Smith that has been making the most impact for the Cavs. Shumpert has missed two weeks while recovering a shoulder dislocation suffered in New York, and the Cavs have instead turned to Smith in the starting lineup. Smith has responded with fantastic play so far. He didn't score in his first game, a loss to the Rockets, shooting 0-5 from the field in the loss. But overall, he's been great since: 15.2 points, 3.4 rebounds, two assists and 1.7 steals per game, while shooting splits of 42/39/82.
Smith's effectiveness can be attributed to a lot of things. Some of it is individual. J.R. has been playing more to his strengths as a Cavalier than he ever did with the Knicks, forgoing drives to the rim and crafty ball-moves in favor of taking more threes within the flow of the offense. We have seen more J.R. spot-up threes and far less of things like this:
Part of it has also been because of his teammates. This is obvious - Smith has been getting much better looks from teammates in Cleveland than he ever did in the last two years with the Knicks, and he has more space to be able to work. The Cavs are just a better team than the Knicks, and they seem to be very receptive to J.R.'s style of play. This is surprising, given the "I'm getting mine" style of offense that the Cavs' stars seemed to be operating with early in the season, but Smith's definitely getting his chances.
However, perhaps the biggest reason for J.R.'s success, particularly offensively, has been David Blatt. J.R. has a reputation as a pretty difficult player to coach, particularly when it comes to fitting in a system. Whether that is fair or not is debateable (after all, Mike freaking Woodson got through to J.R. in 2012-13), but still, Blatt has been putting Smith in spots to succeed and asking J.R. to play to his strengths, and it's paying dividends.
A big piece that was missing from the Cavs' offense was spot-up shooting from the wings. Waiters was/is been terrible at it, and Mike Miller and James Jones haven't been taking spot-up threes unless they've been wide open,and even then those shots aren't going in. Can't say that's a problem with J.R.:
With the Knicks, though, that shot selection philosophy led to a ton of long twos. With the Knicks this season, J.R. was taking 34.3 percent of his shots from 16 feet to the 3-point line, and was posting a near-career low 35.9 percent of his shots from three. The Knicks offense under Woodson and Derek Fisher has been very long-two happy, and J.R. Smith bought right in. In Cleveland, however, Blatt has coaxed Smith into embracing the three-point line. Through nine games, Smith has taken a whopping 61.9 percent of his shots from three-point range, and Smith's percentage has risen from 35.6 percent with the Knicks to 39.7 percent with the Cavs.
The way Smith has been getting his shots up has been changing slowly as he has continued to be integrated into the offense. Here's a video of every point J.R. scored in the Suns game on January 13th, three games after he joined the Cavs:
A lot of transition looks, but he's also getting to the paint a ton, and his threes are mostly off the bounce. There's also those dreaded step-back long twos, which did fall for him that game, but were a staple of his New York tenure.
Contrast that with his performance in the Hornets win on Friday (Start video at the :50 mark):
J.R.'s almost exclusively spotting up from outside against Charlotte, and the drives and off the dribble stuff is being phased out. That's how the last few games have looked for Smith - J.R.'s chucked up at least nine threes per game in six of his last seven contests. Blatt has given Smith the green-light from deep, and J.R. is predictably responding well to that.
Another thing you'll notice is J.R.'s placement on the floor for those spot-up attempts. He's rarely posted up in the corner, with the Cavs instead posting him above the break, instead letting Kevin Love shift down for corner threes when they're called for. Smith isn't a great corner 3-point shooter, but he can definitely hit consistently from the wings, and he's getting a lot of the same looks from the left and right wings that Miller and Jones were getting earlier in the season. Smith's been integrated into that same role in the offense, and boy is he producing on those spot-up looks: he's hitting 41.5 percent on catch-and-shoot threes, and an outstanding 53.8 percent on the wide open looks that Miller struggled with, per SportVU.*
J.R.'s played a lot of minutes in his short time with the Cavs, basically out of necessity with Shumpert out and Miller and Jones being borderline unplayable. However, the Cavs' offense has really benefited from Smith being on the floor, which is the opposite of what many expected. A lot of that simply boils down to J.R. just hitting shots, but the Cavs' offense has him in areas where he's most effective, and have him not doing the things that infuriated Nuggets and Knicks fans for years - the stepbacks, the high turnover rate, the early shot-clock bricks. That is impressive, and something that Blatt deserves credit for. Blatt may be struggling to get through to LeBron and Love, but it appears he's gotten through to J.R., which is no small task.
We will have to see if this newly found efficiency for Smith is sustainable, or if Smith reverts back to his gunning ways and tunes out Blatt as his honeymoon period wears off. However, through ten games, Smith has definitely been a bright spot for the Cavs, and a lot of that is because Blatt's figured out how to use him. It will be very interesting to see how his minutes change as Shumpert returns to form, and if that affects him. But right now, J.R. is playing really, really well, and the coaching staff is responsible.
*Advanced stats not updated for yesterday's OKC game.