However, the problems that maligned Smith for much of his career have been largely absent in the year and a half that he has been with the Cavalier, which is a major reason why he was such a major contributor to a championship team.
When the Cavaliers traded for Smith in January of 2015, many saw him as the necessary evil in the trade that brought a strong perimeter defender in Iman Shumpert to Cleveland. They did not envision Smith staying out of trouble and playing arguably the best basketball of his career, but that is exactly what he has done in his tenure with the Wine and Gold.
There are not many players that would not benefit from playing with LeBron James, and not surprisingly, Smith is no exception. For most of his career,he has been known as an effective scorer that could get hot in a second but go cold just as quickly. A big reason for this is that his shot selection can be questionable at times.
With James and Kyrie Irving operating as the primary ball handlers for the team, it takes the ball out of Smith’s hands, so there are fewer opportunities to chuck up bad shots. It also takes the eyes of the defense off Smith. As two of the best penetrators in the NBA, James and Irving command plenty of attention from opposing defenses, meaning that there are open looks when opponents help off to stop a driving James or a slashing Irving.
Most of those looks come in the way of catch-and-shoot 3-pointers, which suits Smith extremely well. The veteran sharp-shooter knocked down 43 percent of his catch-and -shoot triples in the 2015-16 season. In fact, last season 93.1 percent of Smith’s made 3-pointers came off assists. Of the current Cavaliers, that was the fifth highest percentage on the team, which is slightly deceiving. Two of the players ahead of Smith in this category, Richard Jefferson and Iman Shumpert, had fewer 3-point attempts combined (319) than Smith had by himself (510) last season. The other two ahead of him, Channing Frye and Kevin Love, are both big men, so they naturally have fewer opportunities to take pull-up or isolation 3s.
For Smith, a high-volume 3-point shooter, to have that many of his makes come off assists, it shows a tremendous understanding and dedication to his role in the offense. To the surprise of many, Smith has also shown a dogged dedication at the other end of the floor in his time with the Cavs, becoming arguably the team’s top perimeter defender.
Smith himself has stated a defensive focus usually was not in the forefront of his mind earlier in his career. That has definitely changed, and it was evident in the 2016 playoffs.
In Game 3 of the Finals, Smith held Klay Thompson just 10 points on 4-13 shooting. His defense was also instrumental in the Cavs’ sweep of Atlanta in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. Realistically, the Cavs likely would have still disposed of the Hawks even if Smith had not shut down Korver, but Smith’s defensive effort certainly allowed them to do it more quickly.
Smith being a major contributor on a championship team used to be a rather silly thought. Smith being the top perimeter defender on a championship team used to be a downright absurd thought. How is it possible then that these seemingly impossible scenarios came to be here in Cleveland?
It’s partially because well, he’s here in Cleveland. Remember Smith came to the Cavaliers from New York. The Big Apple’s nightlife is enough to get just about anyone in trouble, but for someone like Smith, it’s an absolute problem.
Even though Smith has downplayed it himself, he deserves more than his fair share of credit for staying out of trouble. If one looks hard enough, trouble can be found just about anywhere, so even the change of scenery would not have been enough for Smith if he had not actively put in effort to just focus on basketball.
LeBron’s impact also comes into play here. Smith entered the NBA in 2004, one year after James’ rookie season with the Cavs, and he had hopes of joining the star then. However, Cleveland took Oregon guard Luke Jackson with the 10th overall pick, and Smith ended up in New Orleans.
It’s difficult to say what would have happened if Smith and James had paired up early in their careers, but it does seem as though playing with a star with a (mostly) steady personality on a championship-caliber team has given Smith the focus that has been lacking for most of his career, which is likely why he wants to stick around with the Cavs.
A focused J.R. Smith is a good J.R. Smith, and the Cavs have gotten a really good Smith for the last year and a half. Despite the current contract dispute, it’s still more than likely that Smith will re-sign with Cleveland, so you can expect to see the No.5 player in Fear the Sword’s #CavsRank in a Cavaliers jersey this season.
Fourth place votes: 4
Fifth place votes: 9
Sixth place votes: 0
Seventh place votes: 1