The Meme, The Myth, The...'Leader'? At 32, There's No Changing JR Smith

Scott Sargent@WFNYScottFeatured Columnist IMarch 5, 2018

Cleveland Cavaliers guard JR Smith gestures during player introductions before an NBA basketball game against the Memphis Grizzlies Friday, Feb. 23, 2018, in Memphis, Tenn. (AP Photo/Brandon Dill)
Brandon Dill/Associated Press

CLEVELAND — JR Smith says he's a leader. As a veteran and one of four members of the Cleveland Cavaliers' 2015-16 championship team to still call this city home, he recognizes the importance of helping his younger teammates as the Cavs look to get back to the NBA Finals for the fourth consecutive season.

"My state of proving myself to whoever is pretty much over, with myself to be looked at as one of the leaders and one of the heads of this team," Smith said Saturday morning. "Everybody has their ups and downs. I can't say I hope they learn from my mistakes; I just hope they don't do them. But it definitely adds perspective for the younger guys."

Smith has had his fair share of success in Cleveland, but one of his low moments came last week in the form of a one-game suspension for throwing a bowl of chicken tortilla soup, per Jason Lloyd of The Athletic, at Cavs assistant coach Damon Jones.

Since arriving in Cleveland, Smith has been a model citizen compared to some of his earlier stints in the NBA. (The most salacious headline to bear Smith's name over the last three seasons involved an alleged shoving incident with a teenager in New York.) Nothing has overshadowed his role as a valuable piece to a championship-contending franchise.

He was the team's best perimeter defender and served as a key cog in the high-scoring drive-and-kick offense that led the Cavs to a title. This season, however, Smith's change in temperament has coincided with a dive in his statistics, and his role has been uncertain.

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Smith is one of the best three-point shooters in history, ranking 12th all-time among NBA players in made threes. He has a cult following, having united rabid fans from New Orleans, Denver, New York and Cleveland alike; the latter group crafted a T-shirt that replicated his tattooed chest. He's as web-ready as any active NBA player, earning viral attention with every three-point celebration and shirtless golf round that takes place. And he's represented frustration—a player with the talent to be more than what he displays on the court.

But he's also viewed with a sense of hope—that he can fulfill the promise of talent and gargantuan contracts. He's parlayed an incredible knack for the long-range shot into nearly $71 million over the course of his career, with another $30.4 million to come on his current deal.

But Smith is the basketball equivalent of Manny Ramirez. "JR being JR" is used to justify everything from his decision to forgo a layup in favor of a no-look alley-oop during Game 6 of the 2016 Finals to his abandoning defense mid-game to hug Jason Terry. It was Smith who arrived to Game 4 of the 2015 NBA Finals on a hoverboard (a device eventually banned from Quicken Loans Arena). His first media availability with the Cavs involved his saying, "When in doubt, shoot," while he has "Just Klownin" tattooed across his back.

Among all the qualities one would link to Smith, "leader" would be considerably down the list. As a 32-year-old in his 14th NBA season, Smith tends to march to his own beat. He goes through his pregame routine with headphones in his ears, avoiding much in the way of interaction. Following games, Smith has begun leaving the locker room early or through the training room door, avoiding attention from media.

But that doesn't mean Smith can't be a leader. The Cavs will say Smith has led more by example than vocally, which is fair. With the New York Knicks, he was a high-volume shooter who came off the bench and earned a Sixth Man of the Year Award. Here, Smith has been asked to be more of a catch-and-shoot threat and defend opposing teams' best players.

"We talked about when Kevin [Love] came here as an All-Star having to carry a team in Minnesota," Cleveland head coach Tyronn Lue said. "When JR came here, he was always up for Sixth Man of the Year. Offenses were run through him when he came off the bench. Now he has to sacrifice, being a spot-up shooter, taking shots when he's open. He has to teach these young guys about sacrifice and showing what it takes to win. He's done that these last three years."

During the Cavs' championship parade, LeBron James made special mention of Smith as what the Knicks considered a "throw-in" in the deal that sent Smith and Iman Shumpert to Cleveland before he praised the sacrifice the erstwhile volume guard made to help the Cavs win the title.

Tony Dejak/Associated Press

"Y'all heard them weak-ass stories," James said, disputing the fact that teams with Smith on their roster can't win. Smith was beyond vital to the squad that ended the city's 52-year title drought, and that cannot be overstated. But the nearly two years that have passed since that surreal moment in the summer of 2016 have left plenty to be desired.

While Smith has dealt with a litany of items both on and off the court (the release from the hospital of his prematurely born daughter, Dakota, was one of the more heartwarming stories of the last two years), he has yet to come close to the PER he registered during his first season-and-a-half with the Cavs, per Basketball Reference.

His defense, which was praised during the team's championship run, has regressed to worst-in-the-league territory on a per-possession basis, according to NBA.com. Smith has undoubtedly sacrificed for Cleveland, taking a lesser role both in the way of volume and in the way of his starting spot for the first three games of the season, but his less-than-stellar feelings about the demotion quickly bubbled up on the Road Trippin' podcast (h/t ESPN.com). He was dangled before the trade deadline, only to be one of a few Cavaliers to remain on the roster after Feb. 8.

At his mea culpa press conference over the weekend, Smith would not elaborate on the soup-throwing incident. Instead, he wore an Arthur meme hat while fielding more general questions. When asked if what transpired was a boiling point after everything that's been thrown his way this season, Smith deferred.

"I have an idea of what I want to say," he said, "but I'm not going to say it. I'm going to leave it as is."

While pregame and postgame rituals or in-game body language may not be windows into greater meaning, even Lue acknowledged Smith has been different of late. "Everyone goes through that at times," he said. If Smith were remorseful about missing the Sixers game, he did not show it, saying some of the memes about his suspension were "pretty funny."

"I understand that everything I do will have a meme or whatever behind it," Smith said. "It's a part of the day and age we live in. If this was 15 years ago, no one would even know."

After Smith's 19-point game against the Denver Nuggets on Saturday, his first contest following the suspension, James iterated the team needs more such games from Smith to thrive. James understands the veteran swingman has a reputation for being a handful and told then-general manager David Griffin he would "take care" of Smith. So, James can hold the seemingly ambivalent position of wooing Smith to his Klutch Sports Group and liking a Bleacher Report video that superimposed Smith into a scene from Napoleon Dynamite.

Smith is fun yet frustrating. He's incredibly talented yet his own worst enemy. He's a great long-range shooter who says it's "more fun" to take shots when covered. He's willingly accepted a defensive role despite being told by his father at an early age that he could get by without doing so, per Jonathan Abrams, then with Grantland. He's clashed with Byron Scott and George Karl but has a willing supporter in Lue. And every time an issue has crept into the limelight—be it his posting a photo of a scantily clad woman on Twitter or throwing soup at an assistant coach—he has buckled down, saying he will learn from the moment, move forward and attempt to improve as an individual and a teammate.

As it pertains to the Cavaliers, this latest incident was simply the most recent in a long line of issues that have plagued the organization throughout the season. Whether it was free agency, trades, team meetings, in-fighting or a food fight, there's always been something.

"Some places thrive with a little dysfunction," one opposing player who wished to remain anonymous said. "It's just a part of the culture."

But when does that dysfunction become distraction? At what point is it a pattern more so than another one-off? When asked by Bleacher Report if the suspension and the 48 hours that surrounded it were in his rearview mirror, Smith said, "Absolutely."

"Just do what I do," Smith said. "Just come in and work, play with my kids and play 2K. That's about it. I can't really dwell on the past. I've never been that person. So I just look forward to the next day and try to do better every day."

For the Cavaliers' sake, that next day needs to include Smith's return to his old form, the one he showed in his first season-and-a-half with the team. He'll need to not only embrace the role that got him here but also do it with a level of consistency that helps Cleveland steady a ship that has been teetering since Christmas Day. Then Smith will be the most valuable version of himself. Then "JR being JR" will once again be something to celebrate rather than something to serve as a punchline.

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