The Cavaliers are rolling since Kyrie has returned, and the offense has looked progressively better and better as Irving has returned closer to 100 percent.
We all know the Kyrie is one of the best isolation scorers in the NBA, and even though his three-point shot isn't back to where it usually is (only 24.1% so far this season,) his individual ability was expected to boost the offense.
One facet of Irving's game that really doesn't get much credit is his impact on the overall offense, or his ability to create for others. Some of that is earned. Irving looks to score first, and can lock into the idea that he'll be shooting on a given possession.
This perception is damaging and a little unfair, and J.R. Smith probably agrees.
Smith has not been the game-breaking shooter that he was after being traded to the Cavaliers last year for much of this season. In 31.8 minutes per game as a Cavalier last season, J.R. launched from three, and to great effect. He defended better than anyone expected, and was generally a ridiculous third or fourth option that acted as a unfair release valve when the defense focused on the other stars on the team.
Before Kyrie's return, Smith was kind of ... not good. He averaged 12.6 points (per 36 minutes) while shooting 37.8 percent from the floor and 35.7% from three on 6.5 attempts per 36 minutes. Without Irving in the lineup, J.R. took on more of a playmaking role, which he's not suited to at this point in his career. After taking 66.3 percent of his shots from distance as a Cavalier last season, that number dropped all the way to 51.5 percent, and the results were not great.
Smith was taking more shots inside the three point arc, and he certainly wasn't scoring on those opportunities at a high rate. He also just wasn't making his shots, shooting only 38.4 percent on what SportVU called "open" or "wide open" attempts. That's not bad for some players, but for a marksman like J.R. it's certainly sub-standard.
Since Irving's return, you may have noticed that J.R. Smith has recaptured his magic.
He has rediscovered his jumper and is using the chaos that having elite shot creators on the floor creates to his advantage. He's chucking 9.4 threes per 36 minutes, and, much to the Cavaliers pleasure, is making them. He's upped his three point percentage from 35.7 pre-Kyrie to 41.9%, and the Cavaliers are running teams off the floor.
The Cavaliers are, simply put, unstoppable when Kyrie has shared the floor with J.R. this season. In the 113 minutes those two have played together, Cleveland is scoring 125.5 points per 100 possessions. The team's true shooting percentage is a jarring 66 percent, per NBA.com's stats service.
In the 123 minutes J.R. has been on the court without Irving since his return, that number plummets to 98.8.
J.R. Smith needs elite ball handlers and creators to play with at this point in his career. He's simply not someone who is supposed to be running your offense, and that includes playing against and with bench units. In fact, per Nylon Calculus, J.R.'s eFG% plummets from 55.5% this season down to 35.9% when playing against bench units.
This mistake that people make with J.R. Smith is assuming that because he is skilled, he doesn't need great players around him to succeed, but in fact, he can't survive on the NBA court without them. This isn't a parasitic relationship though. Kyrie isn't single-handedly propping up the offense with Smith along for the ride. With Irving on the floor and Smith on the bench, the Cavaliers points per 100 possessions plummets to 110.6 (which is still incredible!)
Smith, when playing alongside great creators, becomes an absolutely devastating option, as we've seen against the Wizards and Raptors. The defense simply can't account for LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love, a rolling-to-the-rim Tristan Thompson and still pay attention to J.R. Smith.
J.R.'s defense remains sub-standard this year, and the Cavaliers thrive defensively when he's on the bench, but in some ways, that's part of a coach's challenge with his role players. They're not great at everything, but if you leverage their strengths properly and have the personnel to do so, they can be part of lineups that are a net positive.
Kyrie has helped save what was a rough season for J.R. Smith thus far, and if you look closely, I bet you'll notice that role players across the team will be able to settle more comfortably into doing what they do.
So before you cite Kyrie Irving's lack of double-doubles or flashy assist games, be sure to take into context what having a creator on the court actually does for an offense: it means others don't have to carry a burden beyond their skill sets, and can flourish doing what they actually do best.