Why We Watch: JR Smith, A Perfect Fit

Fitting in has never been JR Smith's problem, it's getting too comfortable.
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Prior to arriving in Cleveland in the Great New York Fire Sale, the things said about J.R. Smith were the same kinds of things people said about nuclear bombs: Volatile. Explosive. Possibly unnecessary. A Manhattan project. Is there a timer on this thing?

Smith’s personality lends itself to the kind of hysterical dissection which completely overlooks what makes his game so captivating in the first place: shots the average human being sees on trick shot YouTube compilations, a nervous energy on defense that manifests itself in cheap shots and hard fouls, all with an underlying mischievousness often confused with aloofness. But, for all the destruction he can cause, the mushroom cloud is still mesmerizing.

One of the last prep-to-pro players, he fell in with Byron Scott and the New Orleans Hornets, and immediately showcased his most intrinsic qualities. Despite his tendency to shoot from places that don’t show up on a Kirk Goldsberry heat map, those first two seasons with the Hornets seemed to posit the hypothesis that J.R. could exist as a player within the NBA.

New Orleans did not have the patience to test that theory beyond his second season, however, and a trade saw him land in Denver. He took on the traits of those around him; namely, he became more ball-dependent and less defense-oriented while contributing to a Nuggets playoff run that lasted all of four games and saw him go 0-for-12 from beyond the arc. Head Coach George Karl dismissed one of Smith’s shots as an “insult” to the “dignity of the game.” By 21, J.R. had earned the adjective that would become perhaps the most-applied of his career: mercurial.

The following offseason, Smith was involved in a car accident which resulted in the death of one of his childhood friends. For his reckless driving in the incident, he eventually served time in prison and completed community service, but his friend’s death cast another shadow over Smith’s career, one which cannot escape adversity and, more often than not, runs head-first into it.

When he became Knick in 2012  -- showing up with a haircut that seemed to suggest his forehead running away from the rest of his scalp -- Smith found himself in the middle of the most promising era of Knicks basketball in a generation, surrounded by the likes of a still-healthy Amar’e Stoudemire as well as his former running mates in Denver, Anthony and Chauncey Billups. They had gone to the playoffs the previous season, when getting swept felt like winning the championship, and had a decent shot of winning a series this time. As had been the case with the Nuggets, the team would look to Smith for bench scoring.

Of course, being with the Knicks means being in New York, and Broadway’s bright lights delivered the kind of attention Smith always claimed to want to avoid, yet found anyway. There were infamous tweets, an even more infamous DM featuring a hollow cylinder and a buzzer-beating game-winner against the Charlotte Bobcats. There was the operation of a scooter without a license, and a 36-point effort off the bench against the Oklahoma City Thunder. Having J.R. Smith on your team is as thrilling as it is frustrating, because for every 40-footer he drains with ease, there is a drawn double-team in which he misses passing to the wide-open star player and leading scorer.

Never you mind that Smith was the Sixth Man of the Year during the New York’s’ first 50-win campaign in over a decade, a 2012-’13 season which saw record-breaking three-point attempts and makes from the entire team as well as a #2 seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs. Smith’s contributions earned him the aforementioned award as well as the recognition which comes with going viral due to a YouTube dedication video (It should be noted that Milford Jerome’s effort is one of, if not the best in a genre mired by half-assed hip-hop covers that, more often than not, somehow make Marcin Gortat look like Young Thug, or something).

But the Knicks’ team-wide success that season led inevitably to questions regarding individual output, particularly with regard to Smith. If anything, his detractors say, J.R. was an anomaly within an anomaly of a Knicks team, an outlier among disappointing trudges through the NBA’s lesser conference.

You probably know the rest: Smith earned a suspension against the Celtics in the first round of the playoffs and was never quite the same in New York, garnering more ire and the consternation of Mike Woodson as time wore on. Woodson saw the door after last year, and a well-intentioned, if misguided, rebuild on Phil Jackson’s part has gone no better than if Tommy Wiseau were in charge. Part of that rebuild did give Smith and Iman Shumpert the reprieve of working with the NBA’s best player and psychotherapist, LeBron James.

So now, in Cleveland, J.R. Smith has his shot at a very NBA kind of redemption, that highly sought-after mistress of Garnetts past and present. Generally, he has played at a high level, aside from another playoff suspension earned against Boston, and even that hasn’t kept him down. So often, basketball is seen as a game in which players play better on better teams, all other things being equal. Sometimes it just happens that a change of scenery can frame the same product in more beneficial ways.

How much LeBron James has to do with the resurgence is unclear, but it's also largely indisputable. There are certain things that LeBron, everpresent maestro of the NBA's offensive hierarchy, forces upon players on his team like a bizarro-Michael Jordan. As any would be around royalty, the current Cavs team is impressionable, cohesive and, mostly, on its best behavior.

Right now, as the several former Knicks have proven, there may be no better change of scenery in the NBA than to end up in Cleveland. A lot of that - the overwhelming majority of that - has to do with LeBron, still the game’s most dominant player and the one who draws such attention that those around him cannot help but benefit, becoming better versions of themselves.

For J.R. Smith, this is perhaps most true. Where he was once infuriating, he is now idiosyncratic. Where he was once a buffoon, he is now charismatic. Where he was once mercurial, he is now cavalier.


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