How Does He Fit? J.R. Smith Returns To The Cleveland Cavaliers


And then there was one. At the beginning of the NBA offseason Cleveland Cavaliers General Manager David Griffin stated that the top priority of the organization was to return the majority of the team that battled injuries  and adversity all the way to game six of the NBA Finals. Griffin has done just that, and now only restricted free agent Tristan Thompson remains unsigned as J.R. Smith has announced his return to the Cavaliers on a two-year $10 million deal. Today, we take a look at the mercurial swingman’s fit with the Cavs going forward and how he can best help the team.

When he came to the Cavaliers on January 5th,  Smith was originally seen as the price for acquiring Iman Shumpert. I was certainly among those who were less than happy to see him join the Cavaliers. However, Smith quickly found a comfortable home in Cleveland. While many felt the Smith would be a poor offensive fit in a similar way to Waiters, it turned out nothing was further from the truth. Smith is a better (and more willing) three point shooter than Waiters, and the Cavaliers encouraged him to let it fly from beyond the arc.

The results were terrific as Smith shot 39% from three on a whopping 7.3 attempts per game. The only other players in the top ten in catch-and-shoot three-point attempts per game to shoot a higher percentage on these shots than Smith’s 42% were Klay Thompson and Kyle Korver, and only Thompson and Stephen Curry took more threes per game.

Smith also curtailed his other shots, averaging just 3.7 two-point attempts per game, and shooting a solid 49.4% on those attempts. Smith’s true shooting percentage jumped from 48.7% with the Knicks to 56.5% with the Cavs. He wound up starting at shooting guard for the rest of the regular season and the first round of the playoffs as his ability to space the floor alongside the James, Irving, and Kevin Love allowed the offense to really take off.

None of this is to say that there aren’t any issues with Smith. His problems came when it mattered most, in the playoffs. First there was the embarrassingly stupid punch to Jae Crowder that earned him a two-game suspension. While he did play well against the against the Hawks and Bulls, Smith fell apart in the NBA Finals, shooting just 31.2% from the field and 29.4% from beyond the arc. He also lacked focus on defense and committed several foolish fouls throughout the series, including another technical foul in Game Six. This continued a trend of poor playoff performances for Smith, stretching back to his time with Nuggets and Knicks, and his ability to handle the pressure of playing for a championship was justifiably called into question.

Despite these concerns, Smith’s contract looks like a good deal for the Cavaliers. By paying him $5 million for next season versus the $6.4 million he would have made if he had picked up his team option, the Cavaliers save $1.4 million in salary next season, as well as millions more in luxury tax. His no-trade clause also isn’t really the issue some have made it out to be.

If Smith performs up to or above the value of his contract (likely given the rising salaries in the NBA), then the Cavaliers will happily have them on their roster. If he doesn’t, and the Cavaliers wanted to be rid of him, it’s far more likely that they would simply waive Smith rather than trade him. This summer showed how limited Smith’s market is, and chances are the Cavaliers would have to attach something of value to Smith in any deal. Since they would probably be unwilling (and also unable given their lack of resources) to give up anything of value simply to trade Smith, waiving him is more likely if things don’t work out.

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While giving Smith a player option for 2016-2017 may not be ideal, doing so likely allowed him to save face after making the mistake of not picking up his last option, as he can now say he has more guaranteed money than he did before.

Whether Smith starts as he did during the regular season, or continues to come off the bench like he did after the first round of the playoffs, there’s no doubt that he can help the Cavaliers. His ability to space the floor adequately defend both shooting guards and small forwards when focused are critical parts of the Cavaliers’ offense and their depth at the wing positions. If Smith can continue his terrific play and (mostly) improved behavior from last season, then he can be a big part of a Cavaliers team that has a real chance of capturing the franchise’s first NBA championship.

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