J.R. Smith had some people believing he had turned over a new leaf. Now that he was away from the nightlife of New York City, and now in the more laid-back city of Cleveland, he could spend all his time focusing on what he gets paid to do: play basketball.
Even in late January, not long after being traded from the New York Knicks to the Cleveland Cavaliers, he was quoted as saying, “I think this is the best situation for me, ’cause there’s nothing but basketball.” The Cavaliers were winning, and many were questioning Phil Jackson as to why he would trade Smith and Iman Shumpert in what was essentially a salary dump.
Smith first joined the Knicks in early 2012, after playing in China due to the threat of the season being cancelled because of the lockout. He played 35 games for the Knicks in that regular season, averaging 12.5 points per game in 27.6 minutes per game. The Knicks finished with a 36-30 record, earning the 7th seed in the Eastern Conference. Their first round matchup would be against the Miami Heat, who finished 46-20, and a good series would be needed out of Smith if the Knicks wanted to pull off the upset.
Despite losing the first two games, Smith did not shoot all that poorly. He shot 13-28 from the field (46.4%), and 4-11 from 3-point range (36.4%).
The rest of the series was an entirely different story.
In Game 3, he shot 5-18 from the field, and 0-5 from 3-point range. In Game 4, he shot 3-15 from the field, and 1-8 from 3-point range. In Game 5, he shot 3-15 from the field, and 0-4 from 3-point range. His shooting statistics in those three games: 11-48 from the field (22.9%), and 1-17 from 3-point range (5.9%).
During the 2012-2013 regular season, the Knicks were playing the best basketball their fans have seen since the days of Patrick Ewing, and Smith was playing the best basketball anyone has ever seen him play.
Smith was finally starting to utilize his extraordinary athleticism that he has by settling for less threes, and attacking the hoop. 34.9% of his field goal attempts during the season were threes, which is a career low, and he averaged 3.9 free throw attempts a game, which is a career high. Smith also averaged a career high in points per game that season at 18.1, and was named the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year.
The Knicks enjoyed much success in the regular season, going 54-28, earning the 2nd seed in the Eastern Conference.
The Knicks first round matchup would be against a division rival, the Boston Celtics. Smith and the Knicks started the series off strong going up 3-0, and were one win away from their first playoff series win since 2000. Towards the end of Game 3, with the game no longer in question, Smith inexplicably threw an elbow at Jason Terry’s face.
He was ejected from the game, and was suspended for Game 4.
The Knicks went on to lose Game 4, but did defeat the Celtics in Game 6, to advance to the second round. Smith shot a respectable 20-46 from the field (43.5%) in the three games prior to the suspension. In the two games after he came back from the suspension, he shot 8-27 from the field (29.6%).
The Knicks second round matchup placed them against the Indiana Pacers, who finished the regular season 49-32, earning the 3rd seed in the Eastern Conference. To call this series a nightmarish shooting one for Smith would actually be an understatement. The Knicks lost in six games, and Smith’s best shooting game from the field was in Game 5, where he shot 4-11 (36.4%). For the series, Smith shot a combined 26-90 from the field (28.9%), and 9-39 from 3-point range (23.1%).
All the progress that Smith had seemingly made during that regular season quickly vanished in the playoffs. The Knicks finished 9th in the Eastern Conference during the 2013-14 regular season, missing the playoffs, and after an awful start to the 2014-2015 season, Smith and Shumpert were shipped off to Cleveland. The Cavaliers went 34-12 in games that Smith played, and after early struggles by the Cavaliers, they went into the playoffs with a 53-29 record, earning the 2nd seed in the Eastern Conference.
While Smith did not shoot great against the Celtics in their first round matchup shooting 15-41 from the field (36.6%), the Cavaliers had their way with the overmatched Celtics, sweeping them in four games. Exactly two years to the day when Smith lost his cool and elbowed Terry, he did the same exact thing by swinging an elbow in Game 4 that connected with Jae Crowder’s face. Smith would earn himself a 2-game suspension, and thus would sit out the first two games against the Chicago Bulls.
Smith returned in Game 3, and played an important role in helping the a Cavaliers defeat the Bulls 4-2. Smith shot 18-36 for the series (50%), and 12-27 from 3-point range (44.4%). In what many believed would be a competitive Eastern Conference Finals, the Cavaliers swept the Atlanta Hawks in four games, and Smith again provided quality shooting numbers.
Smith shot 26-52 from the field (50%), and 16-34 from 3-point range (47.1%). Smith was not forcing up bad shots like he had been known to do in the past, and now the Cavaliers were heading to the NBA Finals. Perhaps Smith was right, all he needed was a change of scenery away from the many distractions that are part of New York City.
Already without Kevin Love since Game 4 of their Round 1 matchup with the Celtics, Kyrie Irving injured his knee in overtime of Game 1 of the NBA Finals, and it was later announced he would miss the rest of the finals. Without Love and Irving, it was well known that LeBron James would need help if the Cavaliers were to have any chance to beat a potent Golden State Warriors team, and many eyes turned to Smith to provide some of the help.
Smith did not provide the help that James and the Cavaliers would need, and the Warriors won their first NBA championship in 40 years last night. Smith’s shooting nights from the field during the NBA Finals: 3-13, 5-13, 4-9, 2-12, 5-15, and 5-15.
Smith shot a combined 24-77 from the field in the NBA Finals (31.2%). 66.2% of his shots were from 3-point range, and he only attempted 10 free throws in the entire series (8 of which came in last night’s game). Smith once again stopped using his athleticism to drive to the hoop, and settled for long 3-point attempts, many of which he missed.
Nobody is questioning that J.R. Smith is an immense basketball talent. Smith has undoubtedly come up short time and time again come playoff time though. Smith can be seen as one of the ultimate enigmas of the NBA.
Knicks fans already knew that; it just took Cavaliers fans a few months to notice as well. Smith did many things to anger Knicks fans in his time in New York such as seeing pictures of him out partying at a club the night before a game, the many questionable tweets he has posted on Twitter, or getting suspended the first five games of the 2013-14 season for violating the NBA’s substance abuse policy. After a poor performance in the NBA Finals, there are less people questioning whether Phil Jackson made the right call to trade Smith to Cleveland.