J.R. Smith hasn’t played a game of NBA basketball since Nov. 19, 2018. In that game — an Eastern Conference matchup between the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Detroit Pistons — Smith played five minutes and 52 seconds, scoring 2 points on 1-4 shooting from the field and committing a personal foul.
If you were to use that game as the focal point of your argument the Los Angeles Lakers should sign Smith, that argument would fall apart quicker than the final 4.7 seconds of the 2018 NBA Finals, when Smith infamously forgot how much time left was on the game clock and cost the Cavaliers a win at Oracle Arena.
For what it’s worth, I wouldn’t recommending building your case around that game, either.
However, if you were to use the season before that, or the three seasons before that one, you’d have the beginnings of a strong case — a case I’m going to attempt to make right now.
For all of Smith’s faults and off-the-court missteps over the course of his 15-year career — from the soup-throwing incident to his violation of the NBA’s ant-drug policy in 2013 — he’s always been a pretty productive basketball player. It’s why he’s made $87 million to date and has $3 million due his way over the next two years.
While it might be unrealistic to assume that Smith, at the age of 34, is the same player he was when the Cleveland Cavaliers last made the NBA Finals almost two years ago, it’s not unreasonable to believe that he can still do some of the things he used to excel at, like shooting the basketball.
You’ll notice that I didn’t specify whether or not he shot the ball at an especially efficient clip, and that was deliberate.
For his career, Smith has shot 41.9% from the field, including 37.3% from behind the 3-point line. In his final full season in the NBA, he made 45.3% of his 2-point attempts and 37.5% of his 3-point attempts. Those numbers aren’t great, but they’re not bad either.
What makes Smith such an intriguing option for the Lakers isn’t the efficient rate in which he makes his shots, though — it’s his willingness to take them.
The Lakers have made a commitment to playing championship basketball this season, and it’s worked out for them so far. They’re ranked fifth in offensive rating, third in defensive rating and second in net rating behind the Milwaukee Bucks, who have the best record in the NBA by 5.5 games. However, every team could use a guy with irrational confidence like Smith on their bench. Take Jordan Clarkson, for example.
Since the Utah Jazz traded for Clarkson, they’ve had the fifth-best winning percentage in the NBA. Before they traded for him, they had the 12th-best winning percentage in the league, and that’s not a coincidence. The Jazz desperately needed someone that could come off the bench and create their own offense, and Clarkson does that just as well as anyone in the league.
Smith obviously isn’t going to come in and average anywhere near the 13 field goal attempts per game Clarkson is averaging with the Jazz (although likely not for lack of trying). Nor will he play 25.5 minutes per game.
However, when he’s called upon, Smith can be counted on to unapologetically get his shots up and try to get something going. That’s not something the Lakers have right now.
There are definitely downsides to that, as Lakers fans experienced firsthand with Clarkson, but Smith’s learned to tone it down and play a different role in recent years — specifically the role of a spot up shooter.
During the 2017-18 season, Smith knocked down 54.5% of the 66 threes he attempted from the right corner, which was the second-highest percentage of anyone that attempted at least 50 3-pointers from the right corner that season, according to NBA.com. His ability to move without the ball and get within the sights of LeBron James is what made him such a deadly weapon from the perimeter for the Cavaliers.
If they can recreate that magic in Los Angeles, he’ll play more than just garbage time minutes, and above everything else, that’s what makes him a more intriguing option than Dion Waiters, who the Lakers also worked out on Monday.
While it was almost two years ago, Smith has competed at the highest level alongside James, and that experience is invaluable in the locker room and on the court. Waiters has qualities to his game that are attractive, including, but not limited to, his ability to handle the ball and get to the rim, but none of them outweigh Smith’s chemistry with James, especially when you consider neither he nor Waiters will likely play much anyway. Plus, Smith has about three inches and 10 pounds on Waiters, so in an emergency situation, he can play out on the wing.
Smith isn’t likely to be the difference between the Lakers winning a championship and not, but that same can be said about just about every free agent available at this stage of the season, including Waiters. Still, if Smith still has something in the tank — a not insignificant if — he is more likely than Waiters to help the Lakers. If the front office thinks Smith still has it after watching him work out, this should be an easy call to make.