Just over three years ago, the Cleveland Cavaliers made a trade that would change the fortunes of their franchise. The Oklahoma City Thunder and New York Knicks agreed with Cleveland on a three-team trade; the disgruntled Dion Waiters would be sent to Oklahoma City, Alex Kirk, Lou Amundson, and Lance Thomas went to New York, and J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert joined LeBron James in Cleveland. After being selected fourth overall in the 2012 NBA Draft, Waiters had fallen out of favor in Cleveland, as a combination of attitude issues, inefficiency, and the presence of LeBron James, Kevin Love, and Kyrie Irving had made him expendable.
Smith and Shumpert suffered from some of the same issues. Despite winning the Sixth man of the year award in 2013, Smith’s effectiveness had dropped, and he had become dissatisfied with his role. Shumpert wasn’t getting enough playing time either, and the Knicks finished the season 17-65. New York wanted to rid itself of two discontent veterans while preparing for the future, and Cleveland wanted to inject some life into a stagnant roster.
The additions of Smith and Shumpert helped the Cavs reach the NBA Finals, and force a game 6 even without Irving and Love. Smith’s contributions, in particular, were vital; in his first full season with the Cavs, he shot 40% from three-point range, helping Cleveland win its first NBA championship.
But the following season, Smith ran into some injury issues, limiting him to just 41 games. During that time, his three-point percentage dropped to 35%, and his overall effectiveness dwindled. In the 2016-2017 NBA Finals, Smith was invisible for most of the series, barely making an impact, until game 5, where he made seven of his eight three-point attempts en route to 25 points.
Thus far in the 2017-2018 season, Smith hasn’t improved much, if at all. His three-point percentage has remained at 35%, and he’s only making 37% of all of his field goals. His performance defensively hasn’t been stellar either. Smith has always been an inconsistent player, but over the last 80 games, he’s been consistently average. He isn’t playing at the level that the Cavs need him to if they hope to knock off Golden State.
Based on his recent performance, it’s easy to say that Smith should be traded. However, Smith is not as cut-and-dry as his stats. As inconsistent as he is, when Smith is on fire as he was in game 5, there isn’t a better shooter in the NBA. His ability to single-handedly shoot his team back into a game is unrivaled. Smith also has a large impact off the court. He’s a bit of an eccentric person, but he is well-liked in the locker room as well as a fan favorite. It seems as though he’s finally found a home after a journeyman NBA career.
Smith is 32, and his age combined with his subpar play and contract that pays him $13.8 million this season and $14.7 million the next makes it hard to believe that teams would view him as a positive trade asset. Nevertheless, it appears as if the Cavs are doing their due diligence before the trade deadline in February.
The Cavaliers have allso registered trade interest in the Clippers’ Lou Williams, according to league sources, with Cleveland vets such as Tristan Thompson and J.R. Smith featuring in various trade proposals.
— Marc Stein (@TheSteinLine) January 20, 2018
The Cavs have also been linked to DeAndre Jordan and the Kings’ George Hill. Williams and Hill would likely take Smith’s playing time, and Smith would likely be included in a deal for either player. Both would be an upgrade over Smith’s current play. Williams is a perennial 6th man of the year candidate who is having his best season of his career, averaging 23 points per game while shooting 41% from three. Those numbers are reminiscent of 2016 J.R. Smith. Perhaps adding Williams would have a similar impact for Cleveland. Williams isn’t a good defender by any means, but he wouldn’t be much of a downgrade from Smith at this point. Hill, on the other hand, is an interesting target for Cleveland. He’s slightly undersized at 6’3′, but he has the ability to play either guard position well. He is currently shooting 46% from three-point range, so his offensive contributions would be quite welcome. But Hill would also bring something that may be foreign to the Cavs right now; defense. It isn’t possible to stop Stephen Curry or Klay Thompson, but providing some sort of resistance could be the difference. Cleveland lost the 2016-2017 NBA Finals because of two primary reasons; defense and a severe lack of bench scoring. Williams or Hill would help with at least one of those.
Even last year at this time, the thought of parting with Smith would have sounded preposterous. But it may be in the best interest of the team to do just that, and Cavs fans should prepare themselves for that possibility.