For the last seven days, in the wake of Avery Bradley’s decision not to participate in the long-awaited NBA restart, the Lakers have been searching for a replacement guard. All the usual names – Raymond Felton, Jose Calderon, Jamal Crawford – made an appearance in the rumor mill, but on Monday it emerged that former-Cavalier J.R. Smith was in poll position.
Smith’s last foray in to professional basketball was in Cleveland, all the way back in November of 2018. In the middle of an epic post-LeBron slump, this was not a happy period of time for anyone in Cleveland, least of all a Cavaliers team looking to strong arm a resistant Smith in to a buyout. Smith, on the other hand, was desperate to be traded somewhere else, supposedly for legacy-protection reasons, but likely for salary-protection reasons.
Unfortunately for Smith, until the last 7-days the only reason his name has appeared in the mainstream since that time was for retrospectives about one of the dumbest plays in NBA history in Game 1 of the 2018 Finals. A missed George Hill free throw had left the game tied with less than 5 seconds left. Smith somehow pulled down the rebound and should have either passed to a plethora of open shooters or put up a potential game-winning shot. Instead, he dribbled back towards half court and did…. Nothing.
James’ complete and utter (and obvious) disbelief at Smith’s complete lack of game awareness became emblematic of the King’s last season in Cleveland.
The remainder of that Finals unfolded exactly as expected, with the pall of Smith’s mistake hanging over it. The Cavaliers were competitive – largely – but swept comprehensively by a dominant Warriors team which was better in almost every aspect.
Unfortunately for Smith, that mistake has clouded history’s perception of his career. Google “J.R…” and the first suggestions that come up are “J.R. funny moments”, or “J.R. dumbest plays”. That’s not to suggest Smith isn’t fault, at least partly, for that perception, with moments like his infamous shirtless 2016 Championship parade, dapping up Jason Terry mid game or referring to his penis as a “pipe”.
The fact is, though, that Smith is still – or at least was – a serviceable NBA player. He can be relied on not to shirk big moments. Importantly, he’s one of LeBron’s guys; LeBron trusts him with the ball late in games.
That trust from LeBron doesn’t come for no reason; Smith was a reliable – and at times crucial – part of those 2015-2018 Finals teams. His spot-up shooting and perimeter were invaluable, and his ability to catch fire – most notably when hitting six threes in a half against the Hawks in the 2016 Eastern Conference semifinals – couldn’t be underestimated.
It’s easy to forget that in 2015 Smith was languishing in New York, unable to find a trade partner, before the Cavaliers engineered the trade that needed him and Iman Shumpert. In his three years in Cleveland Smith rebuilt himself in to the perfect foil for LeBron.
The Lakers’ roster is made up entirely of these perfect foils (outside of Anthony Davis, of course). Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Alex Caruso, Rajon Rondo, Quinn Cook, Danny Green and Dion Waiters are all decent spot-up shooters and perimeter defenders, but they don’t have the experience playing alongside LeBron that J.R. does.
And, make no mistake, that experience isn’t all fun and games. The way teams are built around James is traditionally that coaches lean on whichever mid-level shooter has the hot hand. If you don’t have the hot hand, good luck getting any touches or even getting in the game at.
All Smith needs is one or two good performances in the lead-up games in Orlando and he might find himself alongside James in big moments in the playoffs.
J.R. might be a meme, but his career has long way to go before it becomes a joke.
Written and produced by SportsTips.com
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