J.R. Smith could provide the bench with the boost they need when he returns from his knee injury.
J.R. Smith is an emotional leader of the Cleveland Cavaliers. With a hyperextended knee keeping him out for a few games, it’s possible that he could provide a provide a boost to the Cavs bench when he returns.
DeAndre Liggins played well in Smith’s absence, providing the defense that the team needed to regain its edge on that end of the floor. That’s something that Smith couldn’t provide even before he hyperextended his knee. According to Cleveland.com’s Joe Vardon, Smith has had a lingering knee issue that was affecting his performance. With the way shooting guards were putting on scoring clinics while he was on the court, a year after being called the best defender by head coach Tyronn Lue, that’s believable.
Kyrie Irving isn’t a poor defender. Irving is better off being hidden on a slower wing and when that happens, the guard beside him needs to be able to guard the opposing point guard. There are only two guards on the roster capable of being an impact defender beside Irving in that role. One is Iman Shumpert, the other is Liggins.
With Lue’s persistence in keeping rotations the same, it’s likely that Lue would keep Shumpert in the second unit. Especially if Liggins continues to play well as a starter.
Still, even if Liggins performs well and earns the opportunity to be a rotation player, he doesn’t possess the scoring mindset to jumpstart the bench’s offense. Smith does.
In the 2007-2008 season, Smith recorded his highest PER. It was his fourth year in the league and, playing behind Allen Iverson, Smith had one of his most balanced games as a player. He averaged 5.3 threes per game and shot 40.3 percent on those attempts. However, he took 29.7 percent of his shots around the rim, the highest mark of his career. His resulting 12.3 points per game were the fourth-highest on the team.
Smith accomplished this feat by being a more involved ball-handler, creating space for himself in the pick-and-roll and isolation plays to get to the rim off-the-dribble. He used his speed and tendency to pull-up to keep defenders on their heels in transition, looking natural within the Denver Nuggets breakneck pace.
This year, Smith’s 6.9 three-point attempts per game are the most on the team. Meanwhile, the Cleveland Cavaliers play at a pace that’s right outside the top-10 of the league. Smith hasn’t done as much off-the-dribble this season as he has in recent years but he still shows the willingness to attack the rim from the perimeter from time to time.
Beside Shumpert in the second unit, Smith could campaign for the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year award.
As a backcourt duo, Shumpert and Smith compliment each other well. Defensively, Shumpert will be able to hold his own against opposing point guards. That’ll take some of the pressure off Smith to be an elite defender and allow him to work himself into midseason form naturally. Offensively, Smith is able to handle the ball a bit better than Shumpert is, playing with more control and certainty as the lead guard. Working together, Shumpert and Smith could combine for a number of assists for the second unit’s three-point specialists.
Substituting Irving with Smith would be a good way for the Cleveland Cavaliers to keep their scoring going from the perimeter when the bench is in.
As a player who can fit into the role of a three-point specialist himself, it’s important for there to be another scorer on the floor with Smith at some point. That way, he’s not tempted to take more contested threes than even Lue can stomach. For the Cleveland Cavaliers, there are three such players that Lue can opt to play Smith beside: Irving, LeBron James and Kevin Love.
Lue has used each member of the Big Three as the big gun to lead the bench at some point this season. With Irving (+10.2), James (+12.4) and Love (+13.2), Smith posted three of the top ten point differentials in the Cavs regular season two-man lineups.
With Smith coming off the bench, the Cavs may be able to solve both their bench woes and the defensive impact in the starting lineup. Last game, the Cavs held Kyle Lowry to 1-of-7 shooting from the field with Liggins on the floor compared to allowing him to convert 6-of-7 field goals while he was on the bench. What’s more, the Toronto Raptors offensive rating went from 129.2 to 96.5 when Liggins stepped on the floor (their defensive rating went from 114.6 to 121.0, for those that concerned that Liggins’ lack of a scorer’s mindset to be indicative of his offensive efficacy).
The Cleveland Cavaliers need Smith’s three-point production to reach another NBA Finals this year. It just may be time for Smith to provide that from a bench role. If Liggins performs well in Smith’s absence, the second unit may be where Smith makes his impact when he returns.