Some days it looks like the Cavs will sign J.R. Smith. And some days it looks like the Cavs won’t sign J.R. Smith.
For what it’s worth, these Jamaal Crawford to Cleveland rumors are nothing new. And it just started popping up again after the Knicks reportedly expressed interest in trading for him. So while there is probably legitimately interest in Crawford coming from the Cavs, it’s also probable that they’re showing J.R. that they’re not married to the idea of re-signing him.
Even if the Cavs do re-sign the 29-year-old Smith, there’s no guarantee that he’ll be the starting two-guard the way he was when he first played in Cleveland.
You’ll recall, after the Cavs made the trade to get Smith along with Iman Shumpert, the latter was still recovering from a shoulder injury, preventing him from playing a couple weeks after the trade. Shumpert was the starter for the Knicks, leaving Smith to come off the bench.
It is thought that the Cavs’ plan was to start J.R. initially, then eventually start Shumpert when he was physically able to. However, J.R. Smith and the Cavs were doing so well, 4th in the league in offensive rating (111.6) from the time J.R. started to Shumpert’s first time playing 20 minutes in a game, the Cavs didn’t really feel like messing with the lineup.
The Cavs stuck with J.R. in the starting lineup for the rest of the regular season, sans the third last game in which the Big 3 of LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, and Kevin Love rested before the playoffs started.
Smith was the starter in the first round series against the Boston Celtics but then was suspended for two games after hitting Jae Crowder in the face. This forced the Cavs to turn to Shumpert.
With Smith out for two games, and Love out for the rest of the playoffs with a dislocated shoulder, the Cavs started ramping up their defense with more Shumpert and Tristan Thompson. When Smith came back in game three of the second round versus the Chicago Bulls, the Cavs left Shumpert in the starting lineup, once again opting not to mess with the success they had in game two.
The Cavs went 7-1 in the next eight games prior to the Finals with this formula against the Bulls and Hawks. Now it stands to wonder if the Cavs will stick with Shumpert in the starting lineup, their presumed original plan since the trade, or revert back to starting Smith.
The Cavs have been effective with both in their lineup because, well, the Cavs are pretty good. The objective is to find the guy that would make the most sense to start out games. And while being the starter doesn’t always mean you’re the best player at that position on a certain team (see: Tristan Thompson), it’s still important. With the Big 3 (and probably Timofey Mozgov) already penned in as starters, there are players with certain skillsets that would work better with them in certain situations.
When looking at the lineups from last year, it’s hard to compare the one with the Big 3 + Mozgov and J.R. to the one with the Big 3 + Mozgov and Shumpert simply because the former was the most used Cavs lineup (480 minutes played) and the latter was played only 19 minutes out of the whole regular season. This makes sense given that Shumpert started just one game for the Cavs in the regular season (which, again, didn’t involve the Big 3).
While Shumpert wasn’t used much with the other four starters in the regular season, he was part of the most used group in the playoffs for the Cavs at 105 minutes (this lineup included Love instead of Thompson since Love couldn’t finish out the first series).
This lineup wasn’t the most successful of the ten most used in the playoffs – offensive rating of 106.8 (3rd), net rating of 8.8 (5th) – but the defensive rating of 98.7 in 105 minutes, most of which came against the Bulls, Hawks, and Warriors, is impressive. Defense, specifically on the perimeter, is what Shumpert brings to the Cavs.
A couple weeks ago I highlighted Shumpert’s overall ability, including what he brings on offense. The SparkNotes version is he gives you inconsistent, almost streaky shooting both from mid-range and from the 3-point line.
And while that’s not exactly what the Cavs want, his ability and versatility on defense is worth the tradeoff. Even still, Shumpert is good enough on offense sometimes where it’s not even a question of whether he should start or not.
The starting lineup with J.R. Smith in it was successful on both sides of the ball, and that shouldn’t come as any surprise. The Cavs were clicking on all cylinders down the stretch, only losing five games after the All Star break and before clinching the East’s second.
One of the more impressive things about Smith was his willingness to spot up. This was something he didn’t, nor was he asked to do much of in New York. The Cavs wanted a two-guard that could help the offense stretch the floor and J.R. was able to do that for the most part.
With the Cavs, Smith shot a refreshing 41.4% from deep in catch and shoot situations. This is a big reason he was able to stick with the starting lineup for the remainder of the season. Not only was he shooting this particular shot well, but he was shooting it often. Catch and shoot 3’s made up 48.4 of J.R.’s shots, which is the primary job on offense for the Cavs’ starting two-guard.
A stat that I didn’t think would have an impact on this Shumpert vs. Smith debate when researching for this article ended up being pretty relevant.
Of the top ten most used Cavs lineups, the one with the best net rating was the 112 minutes of Kyrie, Shawn Marion, LeBron, Love, and Thompson. The most shocking thing wasn’t just that a lineup with Marion was the most successful in this regard, but that it was the offensive rating, not defensive rating, of 123.5 that boosted this lineup’s number.
Of these ten lineups, this group also had the second best true shooting percentage at 59.6%. Consider: Marion shot just 26% from 3 last year and spent just his second year out of his 16-year career sporting a TS% under 50%; and Tristan Thompson, even though he finished extremely well around the rim last year (65.1% from three feet away, according to Basketball-Reference), his range hasn’t proven to be that good in numbers (which is okay). Having those two guys in the most dominant of the most used lineups says that the Cavs can score with pretty much anyone alongside LeBron, Kyrie, and Love.
With all the offense the Cavs already have at three of the starting positions, it would make sense to have the more offensive-minded of the two guards come off the bench. Even with the Mo Williams signing, the first two Cavs off the bench will most likely be Thompson and one of Shumpert and Smith. Pairing a shooter like J.R. Smith with the defensive-minded Thompson seems the most logical.
All this highlights why the Cavs could still very much use J.R. Smith. But if/when he re-signs, expect him to return to the bench.