There’s a certain class of NBA player—Lance Stephenson, Robert Covington, Shane Battier—whose role as the “glue guy” is more important to the team’s winning ways than anything they actually do on the court.
Sometimes those guys are good players in their own right; Covington is firmly in that fringe starter tier of guys who justify the minutes they’re given (14.5 PER, .113 WS/48, and 1.0 VORP, that last being on the edge of the second tier of NBA shooting guards we talked about yesterday.)
Other times, those guys are more trouble than they’re worth, shooting teams out of games and generally making a hot mess of their minutes (not for nothing are Pacers fans so nervous whether Good Lance or Bad Lance will actually be the guy playing on any given night when he takes his 22.3 minutes a game.)
Enter J.R. Smith, Cleveland Cavaliers energy guy and chemistry guy and glue guy and everything other than “actual, legitimately good NBA player who doesn’t need those sorts of terms to justify his inclusion on the roster”, and you see instantly where this is going…
Does J.R. Smith do enough to justify his inclusion on Cleveland’s roster, or is he so bad as a player that he costs more with his play than he gives back in intangibles?
Because we know Smith isn’t the linchpin of the team from a quality standpoint. That job belongs to LeBron James.
He’s not the sidekick; that job goes to Kevin Love.
He’s not even the scoring safety valve and defensive energy guy; that’s Jae Crowder‘s role.
So what’s left? Well, what’s left is the fifth option, the guy whose enthusiasm holds the offense together and who, on his best night, catches fire and makes shots to be the scoring option when all else is lost.
So, with that in mind…
The Counting Stats
In a word: Barf.
Smith shot 34.6 percent from the field while starting 35 games last year, the kind of atrocity that makes you wonder how he even justifies his presence at all. This is all the more obvious in light of his insistence on taking nearly nine shots a game, 6.6 of them from beyond the arc, while being a below-league-average (35.1 percent last year, 35.3 this year) three-point shooter.
Mind you, taking 70 percent of your total shots from three-point range is a fine way to end up with a solid eFG%, and Smith’s is back over .500 this year and nearly on his career average of .511, but that also throws a ton of variance into the outcome when he’s hitting only 35 percent of the time.
He’s also forgotten how to free throw; once an 82.2 percent shooter from the line, he’s hitting only 58.8 percent of the one-every-two-games-on-average free throws he takes.
There’s also the opportunity cost of his minutes. When Kyle Korver is putting up a season where he’s fourth in the league in eFG% (.644) and 2nd in True Shooting (.667), why isn’t he playing more minutes, especially with the starters in lieu of Smith?
Smith is better than Dwyane Wade (whose .484 eFG% is worse than Smith’s thanks mainly to D-Wade shooting too many twos and not enough threes), but honestly, at this point in Wade’s career, that’s not saying much.
The Advanced Stats
We are all aware that Smith’s PER has hovered around 8 for the last couple of years, right? 8.1 last year, 8.0 this year, way below the 15 you want from a starter and not even up to the 12 you should probably expect from the fifth man with the other guys using the possessions?
The .034 and .033 on WS/48 aren’t much better, and that’s now consistent since the start of the 2017 season.
Add in the fact that he’s a minus defender and his VORP barely moves the needle (0.2 last year, 0.2 this year) anymore, and well…you see the problem.
But Oh, That Swag
The question really becomes can Smith accept a lesser role and not take it personally. Because he could easily become Cleveland’s Lance Stephenson if he took a cue from Lance and became the humble bench leader, the guy who comforts the teammate who made the boneheaded play in a close loss, the guy who leads and makes his teammates better.
Smith is a better shooter than Stephenson (at least when you adjust for J.R.’s higher volume of three-point tries), but Stephenson’s the one with the four points higher PER because of everything else he does.
Lance makes the Pacers better by not making himself worse while he makes his teammates better.
JR is just a guy with a screw loose who thinks he’s an All-Star. That’s the difference.
There exists a fundamental difference between Lance Stephenson (Smith’s closest comparable player in role) and Smith himself.
Smith never evolved a game that doesn’t involve me-first gunning, and when he gets it in his head to take over a game, there be dragons.
But the fact that Tyronn Lue is either unable or unwilling to punt JR to the bench makes us all wonder; just what’s Smith’s ego doing to hold the Cavs back when they could be giving Korver those minutes?
Smith is a glue guy who can’t stick his teammates together. He’s become a liability as his stats have gone off a cliff.
And nothing he can do for team chemistry justifies the way he’s used in an actual game. This one’s Busted.