“Get him here and I’ll take care of it.”
According to LeBron James, this is what he said to the Cleveland Cavaliers front office when told of a possible mid-season trade for J.R. Smith. The Cavs were interested in wing defender Iman Shumpert, but the New York Knicks insisted Smith be involved in the deal. The Knicks wanted to rid themselves of a player who both cost a lot on the salary cap and had proven to be a problem child.
Other teams would’ve balked at such a deal. Smith could definitely be a difference-maker if he was shooting well, but he also had a track record of being a headache for coaches and management. However, Cleveland – thanks to a winter slump – was desperate. After getting the aforementioned response from James, the Cavs pulled the trigger.
A lot has happened for Cleveland between the night this deal was made and last night’s Game 1 Eastern Conference Finals victory over the Atlanta Hawks. One thing is clear, though: Smith, deemed a wild card from the moment he came aboard, has been a revelation.
You can pour through plenty of stats from the Cavs’ win last night. However, none will be more telling than bench scoring. Cleveland’s bench outscored the Hawks’ 28-19.
Actually, scratch that.
J.R. Smith outscored the Hawks’ bench 28-19.
Now, obviously you’d like more than one bench player contributing on the scoreboard. That said, at the rate Smith was scoring last night, it just didn’t make sense for anyone else to be shooting. He shot 63% from the field, and ended up hitting 8-12 from three-point range. At the end of the night, Smith outscored everyone on the floor except James.
When you see Smith put in an effort like he did in Game 1, you can’t help but go back to the night he was traded to Cleveland. Even the most optimistic of fans couldn’t have seen this coming when they heard Smith was joining the Cavs. The feedback was generally positive when it came to Shumpert. As for Smith, though, it was essentially “hold your breath and pray he doesn’t become a distraction.”
Such a thought process made sense at the time. Smith has dealt with the NBA disciplinary office more than a few times, enough to make you wonder if his potential offensive impact was worth the trouble that likely came along with it. Many execs from around the league reportedly wondered if Smith was going to make an already rocky situation in Cleveland significantly worse.
In what could only be described as a twist ending, Smith has not only avoided being a distraction, he’s actually been a crucial piece to the Cavs’ postseason run. His offensive style — just get open and shoot — fits in seamlessly with Cleveland. And, in his own words, the lack of distractions in his new city has helped him focus primarily on basketball instead of anything which could get him in trouble.
Sure, the potential for things to go off the rails with Smith is always present. At the same time, he’s been with the Cavs for almost five full months now, and other than an ill-advised backhand to Boston Celtics‘ forward Jae Crowder, Smith has taken great strides towards shedding his negative reputation. You can say the Crowder incident was proof he’ll never change, but you also have to note it’s literally been his only bump in the road since coming to Cleveland.
It all goes back to the quote which opened this article. Is James who we should thank for Smith turning a new leaf? Has he indeed “taken care of it” when it comes to making sure Smith stays on the straight and narrow? Is James’ leadership — plus the cited limited distractions in downtown Cleveland — why Smith has become a key player for the Cavs?
The way I see it, if you break it down, you kill the magic. That Smith is not the distraction everyone feared is a win on its own. That this fact is coupled with the much-needed offense Smith is giving the team is incredible, and it has the Cavs just seven wins away from a championship.