Most NBA fans remember what happened at the end of Game 1 of the 2018 NBA Finals. George Hill misses a key free throw with 4.7 seconds on the clock. Miraculously, J.R. Smith corrals a rebound past the outstretched arms of Kevin Durant. Then he does something completely out of left field, he runs away from the basket.
Slicing through defenders, J.R. dribbles out precious seconds. LeBron, who had scored 51 points, calls for the ball, then points for Smith to pass it to someone, anyone. Smith gets the message, but it’s too late. His pass to Hill ends up in a rushed, blocked shot sending the game into overtime. The Cavaliers lost Game 1 and then proceeded to be swept by Golden State.
Fast forward two years, J.R. and LeBron are back together and set to play for the Los Angeles Lakers in the restart. Smith’s homecoming has given fans a reason to revisit his 2018 mishap. But with all of that aside, could J.R. Smith really help the Lakers win it all?
The Lakers’ Road to the Restart
Just over three weeks ago, news dropped regarding Avery Bradley’s decision to opt out of the NBA restart due to family concerns. Speculation for who would take his spot on the roster popped up almost immediately. Obviously, a free agent can’t be expected to fill every hole that Bradley left with his departure. The goal was to just find someone to round out the bench. Enter J.R. Smith.
The 34-year-old guard had not played since the fall of 2018 and was looking for a second chance. The Lakers moved forward in favor of Smith over the short list of other aging wing players. And now L.A. might have an even larger role for Smith in light of Rajon Rondo’s thumb fracture.
J.R.’s Potential Impact
J.R. Smith is a shooter, plain and simple. His offensive capabilities are what make him a valuable asset to the Lakers. From the three point line, Smith has shot a career average of 37.3%. In his final playoff run in 2018, he made 2 threes for every 5.5 attempts which ends up right around the 37% marker again. He makes catch and shoot threes at an even higher clip at 39.4%. The Lakers only have three players that shoot a stronger overall percentage on a frequent basis: ace shooter Danny Green, likely starter Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and former Warrior Quinn Cook.
The Lakers are currently 18th in three point percentage and 22nd in makes with Danny Green as the only consistent three point threat. Even with Bradley, Los Angeles needed the shooting boost from the outside.
J.R. also isn’t the black hole many make him out to be. In his final season, he averaged one turnover a game which is the same number that Bradley averaged for L.A. this year. Smith and Bradley also averaged a steal a game in their last respective seasons.
Now, that’s not to say that J.R. Smith brings a lot of defense to the table. His 2017-18 defensive efficiency numbers settled at 113.2 which is far higher than Bradley (defensive efficiency is the points a player would allow per 100 possessions as an on ball defender). Bradley’s efficiency this season is an even 104. Smith hasn’t come to replace Bradley one for one.
“He’s a shot-maker, a big time shot-maker, and like I said, looks like he’s in terrific physical condition. Like I’ve said all along, I think he’s really going to help us,” head coach Frank Vogel said concerning Smith a week ago. Smith’s skills are not in doubt. The question is if he can step into the role the Lakers need him to fill with only a few weeks to get acclimated.
“We’re not going to ask him to come in and be Avery Bradley,” said Vogel. “He’s going to come in and be J.R. Smith. Just fill that position more than fill that role.” We’ll see what’s in store for Smith in the second game of the restart versus the L.A. Clippers on July 30.