During J.R. Smith’s first two-and-a-half seasons with the Cleveland Cavaliers, the sharpshooter was known for his long distance heroics, outrageous celebrations, and ability to hit shots from anywhere on the floor—especially contested ones. After being a main contributor on the Cavs’ championship team in 2015-16, the guard has struggled since winning that first ring.
In 2016-17, after a preseason of contract negotiations, Smith played just 41 games (35 starts) while dealing with a number of injuries and the premature birth of his daughter. In those 41 regular season games, he averaged just 8.6 points per game (his fewest since 2005-06), shot 34.6 percent from the field (his lowest of his career by almost five percent), and knocked down just 35.1 percent from beyond the arc (his lowest since 2011-12). While he had plenty of off-the-court things on his mind, it was obvious that Smith wasn’t the same player he was pre-championship.1
Although the Cavs are just five games into the 2017-18 season, Smith is off to the worst start in his career. After making 4-of-7 shots for 10 points off of the bench in the season opener, he is just 6-of-34 in the four games since, including making just one shot in each of his last three games. In all, the guard is just 10-of-41 from the field (24.4 percent), 3-of-25 from deep (12 percent) and averaging just 4.8 points per game. It’s clear there’s something wrong with Smith, but what the problem is seems to be the biggest question.
Maybe it was the fact that he was benched in favor of Dwyane Wade to start the season. Smith was noticeably frustrated by head coach Tyronn Lue’s decision but made it known that he would do whatever is needed in order for the team to win. But then again, maybe he let that benching get in his head too much?
“I want what’s best for the team at this point,” Smith said during Tuesday’s shootaround. “I’m just trying to stay positive about the situation.”
With that said, with Wade also struggling, the veteran took it upon himself to ask Lue to put him on the bench in order to lead the second unit and have Smith in the starting lineup, a place that many thought he should have been in the first place. With Smith being the much better shooter, fans and members of the media alike though that he would fit into the starting lineup next to LeBron and Derrick Rose much better than Wade, but Lue had other ideas.
“It looked good on paper, but our spacing wasn’t where it needed to be,” said Smith. “We pride ourselves on spacing the court and letting those guys get down hill. It looked good, but it just didn’t fit.”
Either way, with Rose’s injury and the Cavs needing a jolt of offense, Lue took Wade’s word and swapped Smith for Wade in the starting lineup. In the two games back in the starting lineup, the sharpshooter has just five points and made just 2-of-17 from the field and 1-of-12 from beyond the arc.
Wednesday, after making one of his first eight shots and none of his four shots from long distance, Smith had a chance to make up for it by knocking down a wide-open three-pointer to give the Cavs a 107-106 lead over the Nets with just 33 seconds left. Instead, he stayed cold, missed it, and Brooklyn turned it into a layup seconds later to take a four-point lead with just 26 seconds remaining. The Nets went on to win the game in what was an embarrassing loss for the Cavs. Not only did it hurt because Cleveland lost to a team without arguably their best player in point guard D’Angelo Russell, but it also gives the Nets another win, lowering the overall value of the first-round pick obtained in the deal for Kyire Irving.
Luckily for Smith and the Cavaliers, it’s only October. They have plenty of time to improve, gain chemistry, and continue to play alongside one another before the postseason begins in April. They may be struggling right now, but Cleveland is in the dismal Eastern Conference. They can almost sleepwalk into the playoffs, really. With a revamped lineup, this team still needs time to play together before they will be at their best.
Then again, Smith’s struggles with his shot should have nothing to do with having new teammates. Luckily for him, he is the kind of streaky shooter that when he gets it going, he may regain all of his confidence and be his normal self. The Cavs need the sharpshooter to knockdown shots from long distance if they want any shot of winning their second championship in three years.
Smith and the Cavaliers have 77 games to figure it out.
- In the playoffs, his percentages increased drastically. While he still averaged just 8.1 points per game, he shot 50 percent from long distance in 18 games (18 starts), a much better mark than he had during the regular season. [↩]