We know what we're getting from J.R. Smith at this point. That's sort of crazy, as, for most of his career, there was no wilder wild card than our pipe-laying friend. In his year-and-a-half or so in Cleveland, J.R. has weirdly been the model of consistency.
He cans open threes at insane volume, he breaks the defense once they've been bent, and he's better than most expected on the defensive end. He's selectively selfish, for the most part only when he's really feeling it. When the Cleveland Cavaliers are whole, he helps take the roster to another level they can't reach without him.
Smith is at the point in his career where he can't be relied on for initiating a ton of offense without a lot of help. The first three months of the season were tough on Mr. Smith. He opened up slumping hard in the absence of Kyrie Irving. Matthew Dellavedova is a more than competent backup point guard, but he is no shot creator that sucks in the defense.
Prior to Irving's return on December 20, Smith shot just 38 percent from the field and a low-for-him 35.7 percent from three. Much is made of Smith's reputation as a tough shot-maker, but the guy actually thrives as a marksman when he's wide open.
Smith, prior to Irving's return, was taking 3.9 "open" or "wide open" threes per game, which means they were attempts with a defender at least four feet away. On the other end, he was taking 1.9 threes with a defender within four feet. Upon Kyrie Irving's return, his open three-point volume skyrocketed. He still took 1.8 contested threes a game, but his uncontested attempts skyrocketed to 5.2 per game.
While his volume of open shots blew up, so did his percentages. He thrived with all the extra room, and shot 44.2 percent on those 5.2 open threes per game. That's devastating to defenses and almost no NBA D is built to handle a 4th option that can devastate at such a volume.
He maintained his flair for the dramatic on offense with truly incendiary performances over the course of the regular season. He had 21 games in the playoffs and regular season with at least 5 threes made. That was 3rd in the NBA behind only Klay Thompson, who had 33(!!) and Stephen Curry, who had 53 (!?!?!?!).
He hit seven threes to spur the greatest three-point shooting single-game team effort in NBA history, when the Cavaliers canned 25 of those suckers against the Hawks. In transition, J.R. started to make a habit of throwing the literally worst alley-oop passes in NBA history to LeBron James, who promptly caught all of them and flushed them in fabulous fashion. J.R.'s incendiary nature adds an element of insane, unadulterated fun to a team that sometimes can get mired in its own drama.
Defensively, he was asked to step up in a way that he traditionally hasn't been asked to in his career. Iman Shumpert missed the early part of the season with a wrist injury and, in general, had a tough year. LeBron James typically doesn't really engage himself defensively until much later in the year, and Kyrie Irving doesn't exactly have a sterling defensive reputation himself.
That left Smith to guard the opponent's best perimeter threat for large stretches at a time. He embraced the challenge to a degree folks didn't think he would. Tyronn Lue said that he was the team's best defensive player, and he chalked his better defensive effort up to a conversation he had with his daughter.
Despite the improved effort and attention the defense was better with him off the floor again this year. The team allowed 99.1 points per 100 possessions with him off the floor, and 104.4 with him on it, but that should likely be contextualized.
The lineup that J.R. Smith played the most minutes in featured both Irving and Kevin Love, per NBA WOWY. He played 907 of his 2,362 minutes with Love and Irving on the floor, and those lineups allowed a DTRG of 109.9. If just look at J.R.'s minutes without either of them on the floor, the team had a much more respectable 102.1 DTRG. Still, he was hardly a defensive stopper this season despite his reputation, assignment, and effort improving.
In the playoffs, however, Smith has to be commended for his effort on that end of the floor. Poor Kyle Korver didn't have an ounce of breathing room in the series, and had to be moved to the bench so the Hawks could try to engineer more looks against the Cavaliers second units.
In the Finals, Smith stuck to Klay Thompson like glue and really bothered the star guard for the second consecutive championship round. Klay averaged 19.6 points per game on only 42.7 percent shooting and 35 percent shooting from three after shooting 47 and 42.5 percent from the field in the regular season. He got his threes off, but Smith was disciplined enough to stick with him and make Klay take several rushed and forced shots to try to get himself into a rhythm.
His offseason is interesting. He's an unrestricted free agent with the Cavaliers well into the luxury tax. There's a ton of money out there, and somebody will likely come calling with a monster offer now that he's proved he can help a title winner, shedding a lot of the demons surrounding him. The Cavaliers have his Bird rights, and, if Dan Gilbert is willing to pay, should be able to retain him.
In a season in which the fit of several key players were questioned, J.R.'s place on the roster makes perfect sense. He's settled in as about the highest-profile role player in the league, which suits his outsized personality, even though he doesn't have a secondary or even tertiary star's game anymore. He knows exactly what he is on this Cavaliers team. He bombs away from three, he tracks shooters better than anyone ever would have expected him to and provides the fun, sometimes silly nature that the Cavaliers need when things get a little too dramatic.
After years in the NBA desert, J.R. Smith finally found a home. Now, perhaps he and the Cavaliers can find a way to re-up the lease for a couple more years, because they know exactly what they're getting from him.