When the Cleveland Cavaliers first traded for J.R. Smith, he was an afterthought. But over the years, Smith has grown into an essential piece of the Cavs success. With him out of the lineup for lots of the regular season last year, the team’s defense regressed in a big way. He has been the team’s best perimeter defender and a vital part of the team’s spacing. His role will likely be reduced with the presence of Dwyane Wade, but he still will be one of the most important X-factors on the team.
Smith’s regular season three point percentage of 35.1 percent last season was the lowest since his rookie season. He battled with an injury to his thumb on his shooting hand, before having a surgery in December. His for returned in a big way during the postseason, where he shot 50.5 percent from the floor and 50.5 percent from three.
With the presence of both Smith and Jae Crowder, Tyronn Lue has the ability to use some very versatile lineups defensively. Both wings provide floor spacing and perimeter defense, which can allow LeBron James to roam as a free safety at power forward.
It’s very possible that Smith may not be used with the starting lineup to start the season. But if he continues to preform at the level the Cavs have become accustomed to, it’s hard to believe he wouldn’t play a significant role.
With the Cavs newfound depth, there will be adjustments for a lot of the returning players. But for Smith, all he should experience is a distilling of his role down to what he does best.
In the minutes Smith gets, he will be asked to shoot when he’s open and guard the opposition’s best guard. There should be few occasions where he is asked to guard small forwards instead of LeBron, as he was asked to do in the past. With the presence of Crowder, there shouldn’t be a need to ask Smith to do more than he should have to.
The only instances where he may be asked to do more, would be if Lue starts using lineups without a point guard.
One of the strongest defensive lineups the Cavs can use is with Smith, Wade, Crowder, James and Thompson. Smith would likely still guard the point guard, as he has in the past. The Cavs can go with Wade on the weaker of the two wings, Crowder on the strongest, James playing free safety, and Thompson on the inside. The length and defensive versatility of that lineup is something the team hasn’t had the ability to put on the court in the past.
Should the team go with those looks, they may rely on both Smith and Wade to provide supplemental playmaking off of James. However those responsibilities would likely be given more to Wade, than to Smith.
With a much deeper Cavs team and a reduced role, Smith’s maturity and growth will be tested. He’s willingly done what the team has asked of him throughout his tenure with the team. He has said all the right things this preseason and there’s little reason he won’t embrace whatever role he is given. As long as he does, the team will benefit from his ability to provide explosive scoring and defense.