We all know what J.R. Smith is, at this point.
Parts of four different seasons with the New York Knicks showcased the full gambit of J.R. Smith emotions. He joined the Knicks in the 2011-2012 season after a legendary stint in China during the lockout, both on and off the court. In that time, he struggled to find a consistent role on the team, culminating in one of the worst individual playoff performances of this decade against the Miami Heat, when he shot 18 percent on 5.8 three point attempts per game and had a PER of 5.4 for the series. The next year, he turned around and won the 2013 6th Man of the Year Award. Then he elbowed Jason Terry in the face in the 2013 playoffs, signed a long-term extension with the Knicks, had meniscal surgery, and his play regressed, ultimately leading to the Cleveland Cavaliers needing to take him on as a "tax" in the Iman Shumpert trade. J.R. Smith is like a nuclear reactor; when he's humming along efficiently, everything is fine and he can be a quality contributor to a functioning system; but when the slightest thing is off, well ... things aren't so great.
So far for the Cavs, J.R. has been almost entirely the former. In New York this season, Bad J.R. was reaching new lows, shooting 40.5 percent from the floor and 35.6 percent from three. However, after the trade to Cleveland, J.R. seems to have seamlessly flipped to, and sustained, Good J.R. He's shooting 42.8 percent from the floor and 39.5 percent from three, posting a career-low usage rate of 17.9, and has posted nine 20+ point efforts as a Cav, including yesterday's fourth quarter fireball factory as the Cavs turned a close game into a blowout against the Bucks.
There are two main ways J.R. has been really effective for the Cavs. The first is on catch-and-shoot threes, where he's been masterful converting kick-outs on the break and off drives for Cleveland. He's shooting 42.0 percent on these shots as a Cav, per SportVU data, and these comprise about 74.3 percent of his overall three-point attempts. That's good for two reasons; it means that J.R. is taking more shots off looks generated by other players, which is good for the overall flow of the offense, and more importantly, these are coming at the expense of J.R.'s favorite long-two pointers, which comprise only 15.8 percent of his total shots with the Cavs, as opposed to the dreaded 34.3 percent that he took with the Knicks this year. J.R. the catch-and-shoot wing is always more preferable than ISO-J.R., and the Cavs have been able to keep J.R. from hijacking the offense with these shots.
Second, and perhaps more importantly, is J.R.'s defensive play. Knicks J.R. was a mediocre defender, allowing opponents to shoot a half-point worse than average overall, but 17.3 percent better than average inside 6 feet, per Sport VU. The Knicks were also almost three points/100 possessions better without Smith on the floor and had a defensive rating of 109.8 when he was on it. Cavs J.R., on the other hand, has been much more locked in, as opponents have shot 3.8 percent worse than average, almost exactly average inside 6 feet, and 5.1 percent worse from beyond the arc with him defending. The Cavs are still slightly worse defensively with Smith on the floor (by 0.4 points/100 possessions), but considering that he's usually replaced in the lineup by either a near-elite perimeter defender (Iman Shumpert), a pretty decent one (Shawn Marion), or whatever we're calling Matthew Dellavedova defensively, that number might not be a true representation of Smith's defensive performance with the Cavs. His defensive box score plus-minus, an alternate measure of defense from basketball-reference, is positive for the first time since the 2010-2011 season with the Nuggets.
The defense is a nice surprise, and his jump in productivity has coincided with that of the Cavs as a team. However, the shooting is always the main thing we come back to when discussing J.R. He's one of the most prominent candidates in the league to regress when he's shooting well, and many expect this J.R. Smith experience to cave in on the Cavs at some point. But so far, that hasn't happened. After the Thunder game in February, I discussed how J.R. had been integrated into the offense, and in that ten game sample, J.R.'s shooting splits were 42/39/82, numbers that were nice, but many were skeptical would last. 27 games later, what are his shooting splits as a Cav? 43/40/84. So far, so good.
I understand the fear surrounding trusting J.R. Smith to perform this well over the long-term. We've seen this movie before. Smith can have a great season, as he did in 2012-2013, and it can all come crashing down in the playoffs. Like a similarly streaky shooter we're familiar with, Jarrett Jack, he can torch teams for a few weeks and then struggle to hit a shot for the next few months. The "proximity to nightclubs/performance" ratio is a thing, and there's the potential that the Cavs face Miami in the first round and J.R. is permanently hung over for the rest of the playoffs. He's going to regress at some point. That's probably fact.
But even if he regresses, there's a difference between this situation and his situation with the Knicks, which could prevent the damage of his inevitable regression.. First, J.R.'s always been a solid catch-and-shoot guy from deep, and he's taking an all-time high amount of those shots in the Cavs offense. When J.R.'s gone cold historically, it's always seemed to be because he started jacking more pull-up jumpers, not because he's missing open spot-up looks. Even if he regresses a bit from outside, I don't expect him to dip below average on these shots, because that historically hasn't happened. Also, if he does regress to the point that he's unplayable, the Cavs can work around that. In the 2013 playoffs, when J.R. was suspended, the Knicks were giving extended minutes to Pablo Prigioni and Jason Kidd, neither of whom could dream of checking Paul Pierce or Jeff Green, increasing the defensive load on Shump and Carmelo Anthony. In the same scenario with the Cavs, they have LeBron, Shump is better, and they can go James Jones and Shawn Marion for extra minutes on the wing instead of needing to rely exclusively on undersized 35-year old combo guards. Granted, both of those guys are basically undersized 33-year old power forwards, but that's usually a slightly better matchup solution, especially when Jones is a better offensive player and a healthy Marion can probably handle the third-best offensive player among the opponents' two, three and four.
Plus, it's not like J.R. has always submarined in the playoffs. He was always solid as a role player with the Nuggets in the playoffs, including an awesome matchup with Kobe Bryant in the 2009 Western Conference Finals. He was horrid as a Knick in the playoffs, sure, but those Knicks teams also asked him to do way, way more than he'll ever be asked to do in the playoffs this spring. And even if we accept that he's going to eventually regress as a fact, we don't know when he's going to regress. It could be in two weeks. It could be in the playoffs. It could be next season. It could be next playoffs. Who knows? J.R.'s nothing if not unpredictable, and constantly worrying about him regressing when he's playing well is both taking his play for granted and futile.
So am I worried about J.R. eventually regressing, possibly in the playoffs? Sure, at least a little bit.
Am I dreading the scenario where the Cavs have to roll through Miami, Chicago, and Atlanta in the playoffs solely due to the nightclub theory? YES.
But over everything, am I enjoying J.R.'s performance with the Cavs, hoping it's sustainable, and appreciating every part of the experience? Absolutely.
Because J.R. Smith right now is playing fun basketball, and above all else, I like fun basketball.