June 6, 2018, 11:22 am
The Cleveland Cavaliers left halftime of the biggest game in franchise history trailing by seven points, and with LeBron James “pissed off.” Not at the prospect of a second consecutive loss to the Golden State Warriors in June, but because Tyronn Lue had just called him out for failing to rise to the occasion of a Game 7, with the Larry O’Brien Trophy awaiting its winner. Few teams could withstand that level of pressure and live to tell the stories of a title won some hour or so later, but the Cavaliers turned out to be one of them – and couldn’t have done it without J.R. Smith.
Two years later, Smith has become the personification of everything “wrong” with an overachieving, undermanned and wildly inconsistent Cleveland team, one on verge of getting swept by Golden State after losing the first two games in Oakland of another championship rematch. His late-game gaffe in regulation of the opener didn’t cost the Cavaliers a win all by itself; basketball has isn’t a sport decided by a single possession, even at its highest level. But considering his retched performance throughout the postseason and the first leg of these Finals, that all-time mistake, in maybe the finest performance of James’ career, has made it easy to forget just how crucial Smith was to the Cavaliers helping James keep his promise.
Smith scored 12 points on 13 shots over 39 minutes of court time in Game 7 of the 2016 Finals. He went 2-of-8 from three, and 3-of-7 on uncontested field goal attempts, per NBA.com/stats. Needless to say, no one remembers Smith’s overall impact like they do that of James, nor his game-saving chase-down block on Andre Iguodala or Kyrie Irving‘s go-ahead step-back 3-pointer in Steph Curry’s face. But without Smith, Cleveland’s superstars would have been unlikely to shine brightest when their team needed it most.
Especially significant were the first three minutes of the third quarter, when the Cavaliers easily could have been consumed by Lue’s locker-room criticism of James and the magic the Warriors play with at Oracle Arena. Instead, Smith scored a quick eight points on three jumpers, including two three, leading Cleveland on a 12-5 run that forced a timeout by Steve Kerr with the score suddenly tied at 54-54.
Smith celebrated his role in the Cavaliers’ historic triumph the way only he could. The “Summer of J.R.” was spent bare-chested and proud, indoors and outdoors, thoroughly enjoying the lavish lifestyle to which all players are entitled after winning the title. One potentially complicating factor that barely cast a pall over all of Smith’s hard-earned fun: his contract situation.
On October 15, 2016, Smith signed a four-year, $57 million contract to remain in Cleveland. Though the final year of his deal is not fully guaranteed, it will reportedly become so unless the Cavaliers waive him shortly after the 2018-19 season comes to a close – an increasing possibility given both the unknown status of James’ future, and precipitous decline of Smith’s game.
Anyone paying attention knew it was highly unlikely Smith would live up to the terms of his contract. A 30-year-old shooting guard whose career was once on the precipice due to his questionable work ethic and overall commitment to the game couldn’t exactly be counted on to age well, especially in the exultant afterglow of a championship. But James fought for Smith, and perhaps more importantly, the cash-strapped Cavaliers had no other means of securing an eight-figure salary slot. Former general manager David Griffin waited out Smith as long as he could, but his hands were ultimately tied.
The offseason departure of Kyrie Irving affected no one on Cleveland’s roster more than James, but it’s Smith whose performance has suffered most. Absent another star ball handler next to the best player in the world, the Cavaliers have been searching all season long for ways to account for that glaring weakness. For Smith, that means he’s forced to stretch himself as a playmaker to an extent he’s never had to in wine and gold before this season.
The ugly results of that reality have been on full display so far in the playoffs. Smith is averaging 8.4 points per game on 34.5 percent from the field, numbers that pale in comparison to those previous three postseasons. If there’s a silver lining, it’s that 5.3 of his 8.3 attempts per game come from beyond the arc, where he’s shooting a respectable 36.3 percent – after connecting on an even 50 percent of his threes this time last year, and 43.0 percent in that triumphant run to the championship.
Smith isn’t shooting the ball all that well, but it’s his floor game that’s really killed Cleveland. In last year’s playoffs, 66.7 percent of Smith’s shot attempts came without taking a dribble, per NBA.com/stats. That ratio has dipped all the way down to 51.5 percent in 2018, as Smith’s usage has spiked 3.5 percentage points to 13.9 by virtue of taking an additional 2.8 shots per game. Just as bad, he’s shot 7-of-23 on 51 total drives to the basket.
In the first two games of the Finals, Smith’s complete discomfort putting the ball on the floor or making a play for his teammates reared its ugly head on multiple occasions. Each of the possessions below are from the first half of Game 2.
Smith just doesn’t have the feel to be anything more than a shooter at this point in his career, and the Cavaliers probably know it, but limits of their roster ensure he finds himself in far more situations that require high-level reads on a game-by-game basis. Maybe that wouldn’t be the case if Cleveland’s trade-deadline acquisitions lived up to their reputations.
George Hill, after giving Smith the chance to create a meme for the ages by missing the second of two free throws in the waning moments of Game 1, was far better on Sunday night. But he’s hardly Irving as a penetrator or shot-maker, and has settled in nicely of late as a ball-screen partner for James and opportunistic 3-point shooter who has the juice to burn hard close-outs. Hill is a valuable player; he just can’t do much to assuage the extra responsibility that’s been so hard for Smith to handle.
Rodney Hood should be that guy in theory, and Lue says he’ll finally get the chance to do so in Game 3. He’s been an abject disaster in Cleveland since March, though. If playing Hood next to Smith on the wing was a realistic answer to some of what plagues the Cavaliers, it goes without saying Lue wouldn’t wait until June to give that lineup rotation minutes. The expectation by some that Jordan Clarkson could make a real impact was always foolhardy, and becomes more and more laughable as he continues jacking, and missing, two after two.
Unfortunately, offense is only half of Smith’s issue – and that might be generous.
After briefly experimenting with Kevin Love trapping Steph Curry when he’s involved in ball-screen action, Cleveland has decided its best hope of keeping the Warriors in check is switching one through five. That development should make life easier for Smith. Against their ideal judgment, the Cavaliers have routinely used him as their designated “stopper” on opposing perimeter stars over the last three years. Smith would surely assume that role again in the Finals, and has actually guarded Curry on the opening possession of both games, but Golden State’s star power combined with Cleveland’s glaring lack of defense on the wing (with the exception of an engaged James) has led to a defensive strategy that toggles Smith and his teammates through whoever is on the floor wearing blue and gold.
The Cavaliers, unlike the Houston Rockets, didn’t play that way all season long, and don’t have the ultra-physical, like-sized horses to do it effectively. That much has been clear while watching Golden State run up a 123.6 offensive rating through the first two games of the Finals. Just as plain to see, though, is that Smith as the biggest culprit in the many, many Cleveland defensive breakdowns that have led to Golden State’s revolving door of layups and threes.
In Game 2, the Warriors opened with JaVale McGee, new starter, sprinting into a high ball screen from Curry and quickly slipping out of it, confident Smith would get confused at that high-speed misdirection. The result was a dunk on the game’s first possession, and the Warriors relentlessly attacking Smith over the ensuing four quarters.
The good news: Smith has been better all season long playing at Quicken Loans Arena, and so have the Cavaliers. Golden State’s +16.8 net rating, not a typo at home in the playoffs plummets all the way down to +2.3 on the road, too. But just like there’s no cure-all for the layers of problems Cleveland faces against the defending champions, it doesn’t seem like there’s one for Smith, either.
That’s not necessarily his fault. Smith, who made his name as Sixth Man of the Year with the New York Knicks in 2013, was never brought to the Cavaliers to be a starter or receive a multi-year contract worth starter-level money. The 2016 Finals changed everything for Smith and his team, and they’re still better off for it in the long run. Championship rings never lose their luster.
But today, an aging Smith is being asked to do more than he ever has, on the game’s biggest stage against a juggernaut opponent, and we’re seeing the consequences play out in real time. James is essentially a one-man band compared to the Warriors, but it’s Smith who embodies the Cavaliers’ fleetingly glorious past and potentially doomed short- and long-term future more than anyone else.
August 25, 2019, 8:29 pmVictor OladipoSG, Indiana Pacers
Victor Oladipo had little to say about his rehab process (ruptured quad tendon) at his basketball camp in Indiana.
We weren't expecting earth shattering details while Oladipo was busy overseeing his basketball camp, but more information about the Pacer would be most welcome. It is hard to know what you will get from Oladipo on draft day, but you have to figure someone in your league will be interested in taking a gamble on him. He is still not scrimmaging with other players, and whenever he does return to game action this season, it is unlikely he will resume being a top player in the early going.
Source: The Athletic
August 25, 2019, 8:08 pmBriante WeberPG, International
Briante Weber, after spending the end of last season with the Greek club Olympiacos, is joining the Metropolitians 92, based in Boulogne-Levallois, France.
Weber attended free agent mini-camps in June with the Raptors and Wolves, and spent time in the G-League last year, but has never been able to catch on long-term with an NBA team. He has had brief stops with several NBA squads over the years, so it is possible he could return to a roster at some point this season. There is nothing to see here in terms of fantasy though.
August 25, 2019, 7:54 pmRui HachimuraPF, Washington Wizards
Rui Hachimura showed off his scoring prowess with 31 points in Japan's comeback victory over Germany on Saturday.
After a nice string of Summer League performances, Rui Hachimura is continuing his strong play in FIBA World Cup exhibition games for Japan. He can clearly get his own look in the mid-range, and the rookie should get a chance to perform for the Wizards this year. Keep an eye on Hachimura's preseason opportunities, as the competition for the Wizards' power forward minutes isn't fierce. He could be worth a late-round flyer in standard league-drafts.
Source: Mike Schmitz on Twitter
August 25, 2019, 6:50 pmRobert CovingtonSF, Minnesota Timberwolves
Robert Covington (right knee) is not expected to have any limitations heading into training camp.
Covington had arthroscopic surgery in April after missing 47 games last season due to a bone bruise on his right knee.
Source: Chris Hine of the Star Tribune
August 25, 2019, 6:32 pmJeff TeaguePG, Minnesota Timberwolves
Jeff Teague (left ankle) is not expected to have any restrictions for training camp.
Teague had a left ankle debridement procedure in April to help alleviate inflammation. Teague's ankles have given him trouble throughout his career and he only played 42 games last season. With a clean bill of health Teague will be looking to bounce back from a disappointing season.
Source: Chris Hine of the Star Tribune
August 24, 2019, 11:09 pmDerrick WhitePG, San Antonio Spurs
Derrick White has reportedly passed the first concussion test after taking a nasty fall in Team USA's tuneup game vs. the Australian Boomers on Saturday.
This is good news. White has worked hard for his Team USA roster spot and should provide some guard depth for them once he clears concussion protocols. He was an eye-opener last season and should still hold some fantasy value despite the return of a now-healthy Dejounte Murray.
Source: Tom Orsborn on Twitter
August 24, 2019, 10:27 amKyle KuzmaPF, Los Angeles Lakers
Kyle Kuzma (sore left ankle) will not take part in the FIBA World Cup as Team USA announces its final roster.
Kuzma sat out Team USA's final tuneup against Australia on Saturday as Marc Stein reports that he is flying back to Los Angeles to get treatment. We should still expect him to be ready for training and congrats to Mason Plumlee for making the team as many speculated that he would be the final cut.
Source: Marc Stein on Twitter
August 24, 2019, 8:58 amKemba WalkerPG, Boston Celtics
Kemba Walker scored 22 points on 7-of-15 shooting with four rebounds with two assists as USA Basketball had it's 78-game winning streak in tournament and exhibition games snapped on Saturday.
Walker continues to assert himself as the team's best player but USA losing to Australia was the much bigger story in this one. Harrison Barnes also played well as he chipped in 20 points on 7-of-12 shooting to go with six rebounds. USA will take on Canada on Monday in their last exhibition before taking on the Czech Republic in the first official match of the tournament on September 1.
August 24, 2019, 8:44 amDerrick WhitePG, San Antonio Spurs
Derrick White left Saturday’s game after tripping and hitting his head on the floor.
White left without help but there is no word yet on whether he is dealing with a concussion. He finished with eight points, hitting 6-of-7 three throws in nine minutes with another update sure to come. The third-year guard put up top-125 per-game value, playing 25.8 minutes in his second season. Even with the return of Dejounte Murray, White should still be worth a roster spot in most standard leagues.
Source: Jeff Garcia on Twitter
August 24, 2019, 8:42 amMarcus SmartPG, Boston Celtics
Marcus Smart, sidelined for almost three weeks with calf tightness, returned to action on Saturday as USA lost to Australia in their exhibition.
Smart only played nine minutes in this one but still managed to score 7 points with three assists days after being named one of the team’s co-captains. Coming off an NBA All-Defensive First Team selection, he produced top-100 per game fantasy value as it seems he may have finally fixed his shot after shooting under 40 percent from the field in his first four seasons. He also produced a career-high in both steals and triples with 1.8 and 1.6 respectively as his career seems to be on the up and up.