The Cavaliers Need A Better J.R. Smith

Smith, a Sixth Man of the Year award recipient three seasons ago, came up huge in Game 3. The Cavs need more of that JR to have a fighting chance against a team with no hint of slowing down.

As LeBron’s Cavaliers fly back to the West Coast, down in an unfavorable 3–1 series, the media have wasted no time pouncing.

He got his head coach fired mid-season. He put his best friend — the agent — in a position to negotiate a max deal for a one-dimensional rebounder. He has James Jones playing in his sixth straight NBA Finals. The team is $22 million over the salary cap because of decisions orchestrated by LeBron.

The criticism is warranted. You could even say LeBron asked for this scrutiny the moment he returned to Cleveland. However, the best basketball player on the planet can eschew some of the blame for coming up short this year — something he’d never actually do because it’s not who he is. But if he did, a great place to start would be with J.R. Smith.

Smith was the last piece to be added to the Cavaliers before the start of training camp this season. Smith has been consistently inconsistent despite starting in a career-high 77 games. For the 2015–16 regular season, he averaged 12.4 points per game and less than 2 assists per game; quite the drop off from his Sixth Man of the Year statistics.

Scoring a combined eight points in the first two games of the Finals, Smith came out in the first half of Game 3 and drilled two three-pointers while staying active on defense. He continued much of the same in the second half finishing with 20 points, going 7-for-13 overall. He managed to make smart basketball decisions on defense forcing three key turnovers. All signs pointed to the reminder that J.R. Smith is a really good basketball player when he wants to be.

But then Game 4 happened. 43 minutes and one assist. Not only did Smith not have a good shooting night, but the Cavs abandoned the system that had worked in Game 3. It’s impossible to beat a team like Golden State when you don’t move the ball and find the open man. In many instances, that guy is going to be J.R. Smith.

The Cavaliers got everyone involved in Game 3

Playing in his 11th season, J.R. Smith hasn’t scored more than 30 points at all this year. Smith has had a few games of significance. However, in the scheme of Cavaliers’ Big Three and the offense relying heavily on LeBron, Smith has been an afterthought instead of a spark.

When you play alongside such an immense physical talent like James and a ball handler like Kyrie Irving, it’s easy to fall into the shadows.

Oftentimes, J.R. Smith freezes on the court like a deer caught in the headlights at 2am. Past half court, he typically responds with a haphazard brick. Rather than playing up to his veteran status, he still maintains the die-hard habit of shooting contested threes. He rarely looks to pass to a teammate or considers setting up the offense. Smith does things that make no sense as if he’s unaware of his own evolution. And it’s hurting his team in a way that cannot be ignored.

The Cavaliers hovered around the league’s average in assists during the regular season. Historically, Smith benefits from playing with a guard who is unselfish. Unfortunately, Kyrie Irving is not particularly a pass-first guard. The conundrum puts Smith and the Cavaliers at a crossroads in a critical time.

Smith welcomed the bulk of scoring off the bench for the Knicks because he had reliable ball distributors in Jason Kidd and Raymond Felton. According to Basketball-Reference, 81.3% of his shots from beyond the arc were assisted during that stretch. He had more attempts in the 2012–13 season than Carmelo Anthony and Kevin Durant at a 35% average. This season? Smith fell just outside the top 20 three-point shooter at an average of 40%. Of his 204 three-pointers made, 90.7 % of them were assisted. Another metric that shouldn’t be surprising — of his 353 total field goals made, 106 of them were assisted by a magnanimous James.

Smith’s postseason FGM assisted from James.

All signs point to Golden State hoisting up the Larry O’Brien Monday night for the second year in a row. I’m not counting the Cavaliers out so easily though because of a dark horse named J.R. Smith.

There’s a level of trust that exists between LeBron and Smith. He has the uncanny talent of turning that offensive switch on — much in the way that Golden State’s Klay Thompson can. It worked in a big way in Game 3. It can work in Game 5.

LeBron has lauded the veteran leadership that exists on this roster. In the series is to be extended one more game, Smith has to do what effective veterans do — buy into a simple, faithful game plan that works. And if all else fails, move the ball.