J.R. Smith has been a polarizing player in the NBA throughout his career. He has done some downright silly things on the court, but he has also proven to be a really good player. However, when talking about Smith’s career, many people like to bring up his blunder in Game 1 of the 2018 NBA Finals that cost the Cleveland Cavaliers a win. That should not define his time with the Cavaliers, though. Smith actually does not get the credit he deserves for how he played in Cleveland.
J.R. Smith became a star with the Nuggets and Knicks
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J.R. Smith chose to enter the 2004 NBA draft straight out of high school, and the New Orleans Hornets ultimately selected him 18th overall.
Smith played for that franchise in 2004-05 and 2005-06 and averaged 9.2 points per game during his time there. However, for the next five seasons, Smith played for the Denver Nuggets and became a star. Smith averaged 13 points per game in 2006-07 for the Nuggets. Then after scoring 12.3 points per game in 2007-08, Smith scored 15.2 points per game in 2008-09 and helped the Nuggets become an excellent basketball team.
In 2008-09, the Nuggets went 54-28, the most wins for the team since the 1975-76 season. They also reached the Western Conference Finals that year. Smith averaged 14.9 points per game in the playoffs that year too.
Smith then played for the Nuggets in 2009-10 and 2010-11 (and he averaged 15.4 points per game in 2009-10). Then he played for the New York Knicks for the next few seasons.
After playing in only 35 games in 2011-12, Smith had the best season of his career in 2012-13. He ultimately averaged 18.1 points per game and 5.3 rebounds, both career-highs. Smith’s play that season earned him the Sixth Man of the Year award.
Smith then played in one season, and a part of another one, in 2013-14 and 2014-15 with the Knicks. This was before going to the Cleveland Cavaliers during the 2014-15 season.
Making one big mistake on a massive stage
When people discuss J.R. Smith and his career, many people like to bring up one of his biggest mistakes on the basketball court.
In the 2018 NBA Finals, the Cleveland Cavaliers took on the Golden State Warriors. The Warriors led by Stephy Curry, Klay Thompson, and Kevin Durant were the heavy favorites in the series. However, the Cavaliers were very competitive in Game 1. This was largely because of LeBron James, who had 51 points, eight rebounds, and eight assists.
With four seconds left in the fourth quarter of that game, George Hill made one free throw for the Cavaliers to tie the game 107-107. He then missed the second, and Smith got the rebound. However, Smith seemed to think that the Cavaliers had the lead as he did not try to make sure the team had a chance to put up a shot for the win.
The game then went to overtime, and the Cavaliers lost 124-114.
Smith deserves more credit for his time in Cleveland
Before trading for J.R. Smith during the 2014-15 season, LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers were struggling. They only had a 19-16 record. However, after trading for Smith along with Iman Shumpert, the Cavaliers went 34-13 the rest of the regular season that year and ultimately went to the NBA Finals.
Smith was an excellent shooter during his time on the Cavaliers; he averaged 10.3 points per game and 38.1% from 3-point range. His defense was what was really valuable to the team, though.
This was especially the case during the team’s NBA championship win in 2016. When LeBron James had his game-saving block in Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals, Smith’s defense on Andre Iguodala affected Iguodala’s layup, which then led to James getting the block. Without Smith’s defense, Iguodala might have given the Warriors the lead there.
During that championship run in 2016, Smith was lights out from 3-point range too, shooting 43% from beyond the arc in the playoffs. Yes, Kyrie Irving and LeBron James were the two biggest reasons the Cavaliers won the championship in 2016, but without Smith’s defense and shooting ability, they might not have won it either.
Yes, J.R. Smith has done some questionable things in his career. His blunder cost the Cleveland Cavaliers a win in Game 1 of the 2018 NBA Finals. He, however, is a massive reason the Cavaliers dominated for the four years LeBron James returned home and led the franchise. They might not have even won the NBA Finals in 2016 without him.
Stats courtesy of Basketball Reference