Coming off what was arguably his best season, J.R. Smith entered the 2016-17 season with high expectations and an established role on the championship Cavaliers. In his first year-and-a-half in Cleveland, Smith proved to be a reliable three-point shooting option and a somewhat surprisingly dogged perimeter defender for the Cavs. After nine fairly volatile years in the NBA, Smith had finally stabilized his career by demonstrating that he could be a consistent contributor on a title team.
None of that changed this season. Smith kept his nose clean and still held onto his three-point assassin role, but he toiled for most of the season. He came into the season without a rhythm because he missed most of the preseason while he was holding out for a new contract. Making things even more difficult for Smith and the Cavs, Smith fractured his right thumb in late December. The fracture required surgery that caused him to miss three months of the season.
Prior to the injury, Smith averaged 8.6 points per game on 33.7 percent shooting from the field and 36.2 percent from deep. After he returned from injury, Smith struggled to find his rhythm, posting numbers that were almost identical to his pre-injury statistics. Needless to say, the regular season was a bit of a wash for the Cavs’ starting shooting guard. However, given the Cavaliers’ mentality in regards to the regular season, it did not matter all that much. The only thing that mattered was that he would be ready to go come playoff time, which he was.
For the second straight postseason, Smith relished the responsibility of guarding the best opposing wing player. He did so against Cleveland’s first round opponents in Indiana when he guarded Paul George. Sure, George lit the Cavaliers up like a Christmas tree (28 points per game, 8.8 rebounds per game and 7.3 assists per game), but he was playing so well that it had little to do with Smith’s defense and much more to do with George’s immense talent.
In the next series, however, Smith was exceptional defensively, as he made Raptors guard DeMar DeRozan remarkably uncomfortable. Excluding his 37-point outburst in Game Three, DeRozan’s best shooting game against the Cavs and Smith’s stingy defense was when he went just 8-18 in Game 4.
Having Smith take the on the opponent’s best scorer seemed to take a toll on him offensively, and that was not just for the first two rounds, either. In 2017, his postseason scoring was down by three points per game from the 2016 playoffs, and he took 3.5 fewer shots per game.
Smith was conspicuously absent offensively in the first two games of the Finals, totaling three total points on six shot attempts. He has always been an X factor for the Cavaliers. He is always capable of getting hot quickly and going off like he did in his 25-point, 9-11 performance in Game 5. At the same time, though, he always has the chance to shoot his team out of a game.
It is a rarity for Smith to quietly fade into the background offensively, which is why his early performances in the Finals were so odd. Granted better performances from Smith in Games 1 and 2 would not have been enough to swing the series in Cleveland’s favor, but it was clear how much better the Cavaliers are when he is aggressive.
Even with Smith’s inconsistent play on the court this season, some drama still managed to find him. Moments after the Cavaliers dropped Game 3 to go down 3-0 in the Finals, a rather intriguing tweet was sent out from Smith’s account proclaiming that Cleveland was not done yet.
Smith claimed that his twitter had been hacked and that he did not send the tweet. Less than two weeks later, another post appeared on one of Smith’s social media accounts, and it once again made waves. This time it was a Facebook post suggesting that his time in Cleveland is coming to an end sooner rather than later.
Smith denied posting this as well tweeting, “Idk what's going on with social media but this is crazy. I'm not leaving the #Cavs.”
Idk what's going on with social media but this is crazy. I'm not leaving the #Cavs— JR Smith (@TheRealJRSmith) June 21, 2017
Regardless of whether Smith posted that or himself or someone did hack his account, now is a good time to consider Smith’s future in Cleveland. Smith is signed through the 2019-20 season. Right now it’s fairly difficult to forecast any player’s future in Cleveland due to the recent front office shakeup, but it is unlikely that Smith’s role will change if he remains with the Cavaliers. He has a defined skill set, and he has excelled in the “three-and-D” role for Cleveland when healthy.
Coming off a championship season in which he was a major, positive contributor, it looked as though Smith was poised for another strong campaign, but a holdout that lasted deep into the preseason and an injury that cost him three months of the regular season prevented him from ever finding his rhythm this year. Had Smith been healthy for most of the season, it is reasonable to think that he would have repeated the success he experienced in 2015-16. That was not the case, though, and Smith was left playing catch-up for most of the season.