What Can JR Smith Bring LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers?

Mo DakhilFeatured Columnist IJune 30, 2020

Cleveland Cavaliers' LeBron James laughs with J.R. Smith during a rally, Wednesday, June 22, 2016, in Cleveland. The Cavaliers made history by overcoming a 3-1 deficit to beat the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals and end the city's 52-year drought without a professional sports championship. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)
Tony Dejak/Associated Press

JR Smith hasn't played an NBA game since November 2018, but with Avery Bradley opting out of playing in the NBA bubble, the Los Angeles Lakers are bringing in LeBron James' former teammate to help. 

After a long layoff from NBA basketball, can he be helpful? 

Smith and James were teammates for three-and-a-half seasons in Cleveland, so they are familiar with each other. Including the playoffs, they have logged over 8,000 minutes together. With four trips to the Finals, Smith has experience that many Lakers are lacking. 

The Cavaliers had a positive net rating when James and Smith shared the floor together in three out of four regular seasons, with the highest being 13.6. In the playoffs of their championship season, the Cavs were a plus-12.6 with both playing. 

James and Smith together

Regular-Season Net Rating

Playoff Net Rating

2014-15

13.6

4.0

2015-16

9.8

12.6

2016-17

7.5

11.8

2017-18

-1.5

0.0

(Stats from 2-man lineup data on NBA.com/stats)

Smith's ability to shoot helped create space for the Cavs and driving lanes for James to attack. As James' teammate, he shot 38.3 percent from three on 6.1 attempts per game and is a 37.3 percent shooter for his career. The lack of deep shooting threats has been a challenge for the Lakers, as they are 17th in the league in three-point percentage. Smith will provide the Lakers more punch from downtown.

Over their time together, James set Smith up for 824 threes, with him knocking down 41.3 percent. This season, Danny Green has received the most passes from James for three at 138, knocking down 37.7 percent of his ensuing attempts. Kyle Kuzma has the highest three-point percentage off James' passes at 43.1 but averages just 1.2 attempts per game. 

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Smith's ability to hit different types of threes gives the Lakers more options in how they deploy him. As a catch-and-shoot player, he shot 40.9 percent from three in his time as James' teammate. The Lakers as a team shoot 37.7 percent on catch-and-shoot threes. Smith is always ready to let a three fly if he has enough space.  

In particular with how dominant James has been in the post, Smith's ability to relocate and make teams pay whenever they try to double James will carry a large value for the Lakers. Smith shoots 39.1 percent from three with four feet or more of space, which is better than the Lakers' 36.3 percent. Leaving Smith to double James is a risk that in the past has hurt more often than not.

Beyond catch-and-shoot scenarios, the Cavs often used Smith to set ball screens on James' defender to create mismatches. If teams do not handle the coverage properly, Smith is a threat.  

BOSTON, MA - MAY 27:  LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers celebrates with JR Smith #5 in the second half against the Boston Celtics during Game Seven of the 2018 NBA Eastern Conference Finals at TD Garden on May 27, 2018 in Boston, Massachusetts.
Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

There are a few issues with Smith's game, though. His defense has seen a progressive downward slide. The Cavs had a 101.9 defensive rating when Smith and James shared the court the season they traded for Smith. From there it began to tick up, finally hitting 113.7 in their final season together. 

 

James and Smith together

Regular-Season Defensive Rating

Playoff Defensive Rating

2014-15

101.9

102.6

2015-16

104.0

105.1

2016-17

108.6

111.4

2017-18

113.7

112.0

(Stats from 2-man lineup data on NBA.com/stats)

 

Then, of course, there are the moments that show Smith's lack of focus from time to time. For instance, with 4.7 seconds left in Game 1 of the 2018 NBA Finals, Smith came up with a big offensive rebound with the game tied but dribbled out to half court instead of attempting a shot. The Cavs would go on to lose in overtime. 

 

For the Lakers, bringing Smith in is a luxury. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Danny Green and Alex Caruso should all probably see more minutes. All three are better defenders than Smith and, with the exception of Caruso, better shooters as well. Smith will most likely compete with Dion Waiters, whom the Lakers signed just before the suspension of play, for some of Bradley's minutes. 

But the one thing that Smith holds over all these candidates is a proven record of success as a role player with Playoff James. 

If Smith shakes off nearly two seasons' worth of rust, he could turn a playoff game or even a series around for the Lakers. But he could also cost them a game with a bonehead play. 

    

Stats via NBA.com unless otherwise noted. 

Mo Dakhil spent six years with the Los Angeles Clippers and two years with the San Antonio Spurs as a video coordinator, as well as three years with the Australian men's national team. Follow him on Twitter @MoDakhil_NBA


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