How J.R. Smith Has Helped Unlock the Cavaliers

Miscast in New York, J.R. Smith fits perfectly with the Cleveland Cavaliers.

At this point, we know exactly who and what J.R. Smith is on the basketball court. Put in the right situation, he can thrive. Give him too much freedom (or too much access to nightlife) and his team is in for trouble.

Back on January 5th, the Cavaliers threw Smith a lifeline to pull him off the sinking Knicks ship. Smith wasn’t a good fit from the start in New York’s attempt at the triangle offense. In his 24 games with the Knicks, he was shooting his lowest percentage from the field (.402) since his second year in the league, jacking a ton of contested threes and looking very much like a square peg.

For all of J.R.’s talent, there aren’t many people who, three months ago, would have thought he’d be a crucial piece on a championship-contending team.

Less than a month from the playoffs, that’s exactly what he is.

Let’s not go overboard: Smith isn’t exactly lighting the world on fire. In fact, his numbers are pretty pedestrian; he’s far improved since his two months with the Knicks this year, no doubt, but take a look for yourself:


A nice uptick, but nothing earth-shattering.

Smith has fit in perfectly in Cleveland, though. Part of that is there’s simply not as much partying for Smith to do after hours, something he said himself when he arrived. Another major factor is Cleveland’s locker room. Smith has had his best seasons while playing with strong leaders. LeBron James qualifies as one of those, just as Jason Kidd did in New York and Chauncey Billups did in Denver.

In a strictly basketball sense, Smith has found a role that fits his skill set. No more is he taking multiple dribbles before he shoots, as he was doing half the time in New York. Instead, nearly 53 percent of his shot attempts come without him putting the ball on the floor at all, per's player tracking.

Better still, he’s not roaming into the no-man’s land between the three-point arc and the paint anymore. He’s just letting it fly from deep, something he was born to do. More than 60 percent of his shot attempts in Cleveland have come from long range, up from less than 40 percent in his New York days.

Even though Smith’s overall percentages haven’t gone up drastically -- his catch-and-shoot percentage has risen 10 percent from his time with the Knicks to the Cavs -- his efficiency has thanks to the fact that he’s taking far more of his shots from deep.

Smith’s presence helped the Cavs go from a middling Eastern Conference team to one of the most terrifying units in the league. The acquistions of Smith, Iman Shumpert and Timofey Mozgov have fueled that, as well as Kyrie Irving's ascendence to to true stardom and LeBron's return to form.

As Cleveland has sprinted up the Eastern Conference standings, Smith has been present in nearly all of the Cavs’ best heavy-minutes lineup combinations.

Since LeBron came back from his two-week R&R session in mid-January, the Cavs starting five of Irving, Smith, James, Kevin Love and Mozgov has had the second-best Net Rating of any five-man unit in the league. They place two four-man lineups in the top eight and three in the top 11; Smith is a part of all three. The trio of Smith, Irving and James has been outpacing opponents by 16.7 points per 100 possessions over Cleveland’s last 25 games, while Smith-Kyrie-Love isn’t far behind at 16.3.

Simply put, the Cavs are better with J.R. on the court (plus-1.8 points/100 possessions), and they’re even 2.4 points better per 100 possessions defensively. He’s a product of his environment, though.

Let’s be real: when you have Smith on the court with Kyrie, LeBron and Love, he’s most likely the guy the defense is going to leave open. As Irving and James suck in defensive attention, Smith winds up wide open. With the Knicks, a shade under 50 percent of his shot attempts came against “tight” or “very tight” defense, according to’s player tracking data. With the Cavs? More than 60 percent of his shots are “open” or “wide open.”

That leaves defenses to pick their poison. Do they want to let the Cavs’ stars destroy them one-on-one, or force them to give it up and hope role players like Smith, Shumpert and Matthew Dellavedova can’t take advantage? It’s a no-brainer, but Smith is making it hurt when he’s left wide open.

Lots of things have fueled the Cavaliers rise toward the top of the league. Two months ago, they were 12th in numberFire’s nERD rankings. Now, they’re up to seventh, with the fourth-best championship odds in the league. The superstars get the credit, but we can’t ignore the way Smith has made defenses pay in the stars’ shadows.

Smith is hustling, he's trying on defense and, most of all, he's only doing what he does best: bomb away from three.