After over a year of not playing professional basketball, J.R. Smith finally has a new home in the NBA. That home is with the Los Angeles Lakers, one of the league’s leading title contenders.
The Lakers picked up Smith as a replacement for shooting guard Avery Bradley, who chose to sit out the NBA’s return.
What does a J.R. Smith acquisition mean for the Lakers?
For starters, there’s the unpredictable side of Smith that no team wants. He’s had several off-court issues and made one of the most infamous mistakes in NBA Finals history in 2018.
This history would likely turn most teams away from Smith. But the Lakers weren’t one of those teams.
They overlooked his antics and saw him as a legitimate contributor, which is precisely what Smith is when at his best. He was extremely effective during the Cavs’ 2016 championship run. Across that stretch, Smith started all 21 postseason games and averaging 11.5 points per game on 43% shooting from beyond the arc. He’s also a former 6th Man of the Year.
Unfortunately, it’s unlikely the Lakers will get a J.R. Smith of this caliber. He’s four years removed from that impressive playoff run, and his playing days are nearing their end. Smith turns 35 in a few months.
We haven’t seen Smith suit up for an NBA game since 2018. With that in mind, he may be too rusty to produce in the playoffs consistently.
Even worse, those last few games that Smith played were ugly. He played in 11 contests at the start of the 2018-2019 season. He won just one game and posting career lows in points per game (6.7) and field goal percentage (34.2%).
The 11-game sample size isn’t enough to suggest that Smith’s talent is completely lost, but it isn’t reassuring. Still, the Lakers picking up Smith shows they have faith in the veteran.
Assuming the signing pays off, the Lakers could be getting one of the game’s best tough shot makers with championship experience. He’d give LA extra outside shooting and defense at the wing position, two skills that playoff teams can’t get enough of. Smith even stated that this is exactly what he plans on bringing to the Lakers, per Mike Trudell.
Smith’s shooting is even more critical because of his reunion with former teammate and longtime friend LeBron James. James, the league leader in assists per game, has thrived throughout his career when surrounded by elite catch-and-shoot shooters such as Smith.
With the Lakers centering much of their offense around him as a facilitator, it’s imperative that James has shooters to create open shots for. Smith’s success alongside James on the Cavs shows that he can fill that need perfectly.
Defensively, Smith doesn’t offer anything spectacular. He’s past his athletic prime and is a clear downgrade from Avery Bradley as an on-ball defender.
This isn’t to say that Smith is some horrible defender, though. He’s been part of several successful defensive systems throughout his career and has an impressive 6’10” wingspan. And with other solid perimeter defenders like Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Alex Caruso surrounding him, Smith won’t be needed to guard the opponent’s best outside scorer.
It’s pretty tough to predict how much J.R. Smith will affect the Lakers’ chances as the season resumes. There’s even a chance he loses most of his minutes to his younger teammates that are already familiar with the system.
But if given a chance to shine, Smith has proven his worth as a valuable playoff asset. It’s just a matter of whether or not the Lakers will get that version of Smith.