J.R. Smith is a two-time NBA champion. Sure, he played a much bigger role in his first championship run with the Cleveland Cavaliers than he did in his second championship run with the Los Angeles Lakers, but a two-time champion is a two-time champion.
Coming fresh off of his second championship, Smith joined the CBS Sports’ “All Things Covered” podcast to talk about his career, and during the interview, Smith was asked a question that only players that have won more than one championship can be asked: “which one of your championship teams would win a head-to-head matchup?”
Smith’s response was surprising:
“This is with no disrespect to nobody, but I just think the size that we have — the Lakers have — we just didn’t have in Cleveland. In Cleveland, we were more grittier, we played a little harder, we were much nastier defensively, but the size with this Lakers team with [Anthony Davis] and Dwight [Howard], and being able to change the lineups with Markieff [Morris], we just weren’t that versatile [in Cleveland]. We could play multiple different ways in L.A., but in Cleveland, we only had to play one way ... I think the Lakers team was just too big.”
Now, we’re obviously not going to argue that Smith is wrong because it just fuels the idea that the Lakers are better than every other team in NBA history, and that exceptionalism is kind of our thing. However, it’s always fun to break these theoretical matchups down, so that’s what we’re going to do.
PG: Kyrie Irving vs. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope
SG: J.R. Smith vs. Danny Green
SF: LeBron James vs. LeBron James
PF: Kevin Love vs. Anthony Davis
C: Tristan Thompson vs. Dwight Howard
The positional matchup that immediately stands out is LeBron James vs. LeBron James, for obvious reasons. In 2016, James was four years younger than he is now because, well, that’s how time works. However, James actually averaged more points per game in the postseason during the 2019-20 season than he did during the 2015-16 season despite the fact that he played 2.8 fewer minutes per game this past season.
We are going to start a dialogue.
All jokes aside, James was at the near peak of his powers in 2016 and was capable of playing almost 40 minutes per game on any given night. The same is technically true with James even at 35 years old, but the risk of a devastating injury obviously increases with age. For that reason, 2016 James probably gets the edge here.
Then, there’s the supporting cast.
The Cavaliers famously had a big three of James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love while the Lakers didn’t have a clear-cut No. 3 option on their roster. What the Lakers did have, though, was Anthony Davis, who’s arguably the greatest teammate James has ever had. Love was great in 2016, but it’s hard to imagine Davis would have too much trouble with that matchup on either end of the floor.
The real X-Factor is Irving — specifically, how the Lakers would guard him. The Lakers saw a handful of creative guards during their quest to the title, including, but not limited to, Damian Lillard, James Harden and Jamal Murray, but none that were creative as Irving in 2016. Would Danny Green and Alex Caruso be enough to keep Irving honest, or at more honest than Klay Thompson did in 2016? That’s a tougher call to make.
Going with the assumption that Irving would be too much for the Lakers to handle, the Lakers would still be in the game because of how their bench matches up with Cleveland’s. There’s only one thing better than Playoff Delly, and it’s Playoff Rondo.
Unfortunately, we’ll never know which team was better, but it’s a fun conversation to have. Let us know who you think would win in the comments below!