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What if JR Smith never came back to the Cavs?

With JR Smith’s extended injury keeping him out for the majority of the season, the Cavs are faced with a situation they weren’t prepared. Or were they?

What if Smith had signed elsewhere before the season? How would the Cavaliers have replaced his production? It certainly wouldn’t have been easy, and would have been a giant dent in the Cavs chances at a title repeat.

Early in the offseason, reports were out that Smith was looking for a contract worth $15 million per year. He ended up signing for $57 million over four years, or $14.25 million per year. The Cavaliers had Smith’s bird rights, which is the only reason they were able to keep him. Because the Cavs’ payroll was(is)so high they are unable to sign free agents without bird rights. Bird rights give a team leeway to re-sign a pending free agent while allowing them to surpass the salary cap. The Cavs were already a substantial amount past the cap, so while they would have “saved” money by not re-signing Smith, they still would’ve had to pay a large amount of luxury tax, resulting in no gain whatsoever, only a slightly smaller fee. So it made sense to take the cap hit to keep Smith. The same went for Matthew Dellavedova, which made the decision to let him go all the more surprising.

Let’s start with the most obvious alternative: Iman Shumpert. Shumpert has been used as the primary backup point guard so far this season, in addition to his usual spots on the wing. Shumpert has been great on defense as he normally is, but his offensive game has taken a huge step forward, which is a fantastic thing for the Cavs. He’s shooting 48%, and a sensational 45% from three-point range. This Shumpert could easily have replaced Smith, although I don’t think anyone expected this kind of offensive performance from him.

While Shumpert has been a pleasant surprise, Jordan McCrae has been a disappointment. McCrae is a young, lengthy and athletic scorer who the Cavs envisioned coming off the bench and providing a spark for the second unit. McCrae can create his own shot off the dribble, unlike most of the Cavs’ reserves. Unfortunately, McCrae has been, to put it bluntly, terrible thus far. McCrae has only been playing 10 minutes per game this year, due to his atrocious shooting percentage of 30%. He’s capable of taking over a game, but he needs to be much more consistent to warrant a larger role.

Mike Dunleavy was brought over from Chicago to provide the Cavs’ bench with another great 3pt shooter, but hasn’t provided that so far this year. He’s only shooting 29% from deep, which is about 10 points under his career average. His first game after Smith’s long-term absence became known was ravishing, but his consistency has yet ot be soon. The Cavaliers need him to perform better if they hope to win the NBA Finals this year.

The wild card here is DeAndre Liggins. He’s played in the D-League the past few season, winning the defensive player of the year. He’s similar to Shumpert in this regard, although some say he’s even better defensively. When the Cavs played the Raptors last week, Kyle Lowry was at the top of his game, completely outmatching whoever was guarding him, except for Liggins. As Cavs Nation’s Will Goodall dissected: when the two matched up, Lowry was completely shut down, shooting 14%. It’ll be interesting to see how he performs against Steph Curry. Liggins isn’t an offensive powerhouse, but he’s shooting 53% this year, and hasn’t missed from deep, for what it’s worth.

Losing Smith would’ve been an incredible loss for the Cavaliers, but they would’ve been able to replace him with a multitude of in-house options. Now, with Smith out till late March, it’s quite possible those in-house options will either prevail or serve as bait for out-house possibilities. Consider the type of 3-and-D wing player that the Cavs can scrap from trade assets like the shooting guards mentioned here, other young talents like Kay Felder, trade exceptions which are being tested by the new CBA and their few remaining draft picks. As assets dwindle, the Cavs will need to put more serious considerations into the options that force them to find success with or without Jr Smith.

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