J.R. Smith is officially back with the Cleveland Cavaliers, agreeing to a four-year, $57 million deal on Friday. After a hold-out that lasted longer than Tristan Thompson’s last season, Smith will finally join the team in a formal manner with eight days before the season starts. This, of course, is wonderful news: in addition to being a fan favorite, J.R. is a vital player for the Cavs, as he brings the rare mix of elite catch-and-shoot numbers, solid perimeter defense, and on-ball shot creation that fills gaps between the Cavs’ stars and role players.
Smith should continue to be an integral part of the Cavaliers’ plans and he fits in well with the culture, despite his history of stops where that hasn’t been the case. Those two reasons were the biggest reasons for the holdout - Smith knew the Cavs needed him, and the Cavs knew that Smith wants to be here and didn’t have a ton of other options. The nice thing is that like Thompson’s contract dispute, there shouldn’t be any bad blood lingering between sides: After all, J.R. got a good chunk of change, and having LeBron James advocating for him to both the management and player side will help smooth over any residual issues.
Off the court, things should be fine, but that’s not so much of a worry now for the Cavs. On the court, Smith might not be at peak levels of Pipe-itude right from the beginning of the season. The hold-out caused him to miss almost three weeks of camp, and he’ll only have about a week with the team before they get into the season. This could mean that he’s still playing himself into shape this season, and will be behind the eight-ball when it comes to working in with the Cavs’ rotation.
This isn’t to assume that Smith hasn’t been working out (he has) or that he hasn’t been involved with the new stuff the Cavs are likely implementing (Ty Lue and LeBron have certainly kept him in the loop). But there is a difference between offseason workout routines and getting real practice time against other bodies, and there’s a difference between talking over strategic changes and implementing them on the court with teammates.
The issue is not whether J.R. will know where to be on the floor, or be physically able to get to those spots. We know that he’ll be able to do both. It’s whether he can do both consistently that will determine how successful he is during the early part of the season. Physically, playing well is more of an endurance question than a pure athleticism question. Can J.R. be relied on for around 30 minutes a game without any drop-off in his level of play? If he is out there for that long, can the Cavs ask him to do everything they ideally want him doing, especially on the defensive end? Remember, when Tristan Thompson came in late last year, he played under 30 minutes in each of the first 12 contests, and didn’t really round into shape on the defensive end until December. With J.R., it could be a similar story.
In terms of chemistry, Smith needs to develop cohesiveness with the Cavs’ new players, as he will likely be spending a lot of time with Mike Dunleavy, Jordan McRae (yes, he’s not new, but his role will be greatly expanded), and Kay Felder. Smith and Iman Shumpert get the unique challenge of being called upon across all types of lineups the Cavs run, from the starting unit to bench-heavy groups without two of LeBron, Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving. He needs to be comfortable working with pretty much everyone on the roster on both ends of the floor. We know he will be in sync with the starters pretty quickly, but getting a rapport with Dunleavy and the young bloods will be equally important, and may take longer.
For these reasons, I would not be surprised to see J.R. have a few bad games to kick off the 2016-17 season. He should be able to get to where he needs to be eventually (after all, in the grand scheme of things he missed three weeks of what will be a nine-month season), but it may take him a little while longer to develop the endurance and mental cohesion that it takes to be effective in an NBA game. Once he does, I think he’ll be back to the J.R. Swish we know and love. But if he looks like Knicks J.R. Smith on the floor in November, it shouldn’t come as a surprise.