J.R. Smith is an enigma.
For those unfamiliar with that word, an enigma, according to the dictionary, is "a person of puzzling or contradictory character." In other words, it's the perfect description that describes the most polarizing player in the league.
Smith can be many things; he's a three-point sniper who can get as hot as any player in the league, and can win you at least one game in the playoffs with those skills. Game One of the 2015 Eastern Conference Finals is a prime example of this, when he hit 8-of-his-12 three-point attempts -- four those shots were made with a defender within four feet of him -- and scored 28 points the Cavs' win.
He can also be a bonehead player who lets his character get the best of him in the heat of the moment, and can cost you a game in the playoffs. Game Four of the 2015 Eastern Conference First Round captures this aspect, when Smith threw a vicious elbow into the head of Boston Celtics forward Jae Crowder and received a flagrant-2 foul and forced him to miss the first game of the Eastern Conference Semifinals against the Chicago Bulls; a game the Cavs would wind up losing.
Neither of those situations are in insolation of his past. As a matter of fact go on YouTube and type in his name, and the disparity of videos you'll find will range from him hitting a number of three-pointers with high levels of difficulty to him riding into a playoff game on a motorized scooter. He's one of the league's most fun players, but he also is a puzzle that no team has figured out.
The Cavs, of course, came extremely close to solving the J.R. puzzle, coming within two games of beating the Golden State Warriors for the NBA title. How did they almost achieve what that ultimate goal, with J.R. Smith? The obvious answer is to the roster around him, which included LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, but that's the lazy way out.
Looking at some of the numbers for Smith, most of his stats didn't deviate too much from his career numbers. His three-point percentage was slightly better than his career average; he attempted just over one more three-pointer per game than his career average; and his points per 36 minutes was actually the lowest of his career.
So what changed? It's simple: the ball was only in Smith's hands only when it needed to be. Smith's usage percentage with the Cavs last year was 17.6, which was the lowest of his career and almost six percentage points lower than his career average. Combine that with his lowest turnover percentage of his career, and you'll see the that the Cavs limited his opportunities and he responded by taking those opportunities.
A lot of that, however, lies in the fact that he has James, Irving and Love ahead of him on the offensive totem pole, something he has never had the opportunity to play with in his career. Smith did play alongside All-Stars Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul and Allen Iverson at points in his career, but he was never lower than the third option offensively on each team he has played for.
There's no question that Smith has the skill set to handle being the second or third option on a team, just not on a contending team. And that's okay. Smith is one of the best catch-and-shoot players in the league, finishing 11th in the league in catch-and-shoot three-point percentage. Combine his ability to shoot off of the catch and James', Irving's and Love's passing abilities, that makes for an extremely deadly combo.
Smith's catch-and-shoot ability is more than just a luxury for the Cavs -- it's a weapon that makes a great offense that much better. Not only will Smith be on the receiving end of passes from the James or Irving (as shown above), he'll also force his man to stay on Smith when either James or Irving drive. Imagine if Smith was able to get open shots in the Finals instead of being forced to create on his own?
When healthy (that seems to be the common phrase in these previews), Smith's role in the offense will remain the same. A lot of catch-and-shoot opportunities, with a hint of isolation drives and a contested, step-back jumper thrown in there every so often; the perfect formula for Smith to succeed and become a pivotal role player on a team that has championship-or-bust expectations.
Of course, just when everyone thought Smith had turned the corner in 2013 after he won Sixth Man of the Year, he turned in his worst year as pro.
Will the J.R. Smith career riddle continue, or have the Cavs unlocked enough clues to figure out the enigma that is Smith?