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Previously, On the Lake Show: J.R. Smith

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J.R. Smith hasn’t played organized basketball in about 20 months, which means he’s even more of a puzzle than he was before.

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Graphic via Zain Fahimullah / Silver Screen and Roll

Editor’s Note: As the season gets closer, our Silver Screen and Roll staff is going to be taking a closer look back at every player on the Lakers for a refresher on stuff we may have forgotten during quarantine. Think of this as the 30-second clip reminding you of what happened during the current season of your favorite TV show that rolls right before the latest episode starts. Today, let’s recall what was up with J.R. Smith.

The Lakers have been flirting with J.R. Smith for so long that it’s hard to believe he only officially signed with the team two days ago. But what has long been speculated has finally come to pass, as Smith will be donning the purple and gold later this month when the NBA resumes.

It’s a big deal for Smith to be suiting up in a Laker jersey, because he hasn’t worn any NBA jersey since November 19, 2018, when he played less than six minutes for the Cavaliers against the Detroit Pistons. It was the last of 11 games Smith played for Cleveland that season, so when LeBron James says it’s “like we never left”, that holds extra meaning for Smith. His NBA career had essentially ceased to exist without James as his teammate. NBA insiders all but declared his time in the league was done.

Focusing on those 11 games — 10 of which were losses — two years ago for a hopeless Cavaliers team doesn’t paint an accurate picture of what Smith can bring to the Lakers, mostly because this current L.A. team has infinitely more talent than there was in Cleveland after James left. It makes more sense to go back to 2017-18, the last season that Smith played with James, to see how he can contribute to a winning group.

In that regular season, Smith shot 37.6% on 3-pointers, which made up about 23 of his total shot selection. He shot 39.4% on catch-and-shoot threes, and 39.3% when he was open (meaning a defender was at least four feet away). If he can replicate those numbers, he’ll be able to create space for James, Anthony Davis, and the Lakers’ centers in the post.

Smith has never been bashful about shooting either, and his 6.1 3-pointers per-36 minutes is just a tick above the volume Avery Bradley (5.2) and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (5.0) have managed this year. There is arguably no one better in NBA history at creating 3-point looks than James, so those shots will be there for the taking.

Even though Smith’s efficiency dropped off dramatically in 2018-19, he still shot 38.1% on threes during his total time in Cleveland. That would be second-best among rotation players on the Lakers behind KCP (apologies to JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard for not having enough attempts to qualify). If Smith’s shooting has aged like that of Kyle Korver or George Hill — both former teammates in Cleveland — then it’s still a high-level skill that fills a need for the Lakers.

The problem with Smith is that he hasn’t been an above-average defender since 2014-15. With the Cavaliers, being a flamethrower on offense in the LeBron + shooters lineups was enough to offset that weakness, but L.A. isn’t the same caliber offense as Cleveland from 2015-18. In order for Smith to be valuable, either his 3-point efficiency will have to go up even more, or he’ll have to dial back the clock to when he still brought it as a perimeter defender. There are reasons why Smith was on the market for so long, after all.

At least Smith appeared to take advantage of that time off. All indications are that Smith has done a good job of staying in shape over the last year. He has been waiting for a call from a team since the start of the 2019-20 season and consequently has had to stay ready. Smith worked out with the Lakers earlier this season after the trade deadline, and reportedly impressed the team then even though they elected to go with Dion Waiters at the time.

Frank Vogel told the media Wednesday, “We know he can help us. We almost added him earlier in the year when we added Dion Waiters, and now we have the luxury of having both.”

Smith is rumored to have been working out in Los Angeles during the hiatus, and he definitely took part in a bike ride along with James and Davis around the city in May. Extra points for jumpstarting the team chemistry.

The Lakers would not have signed Smith if they didn’t think he was approaching this opportunity seriously and didn’t believe he could meaningfully impact the team. Having hope is well and good, but nearly two years of inaction means the team doesn’t really know what kind of player Smith is anymore. Fortunately, the Lakers can afford to take a chance on Smith because they don’t need him; he’s a luxury.

Maybe Smith resembles who he was back in Cleveland in his first stint with James nearly two years ago, or maybe he really is no longer worthy of being an NBA player. J.R. Smith has always been a question mark. His L.A. chapter will be no different.

For more Lakers talk, subscribe to the Silver Screen and Roll podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts. You can follow Sabreena on Twitter at @sabreenajm.