Before J.R. Smith was “that guy LeBron James is yelling at in that one meme,” Smith was still a meme, but he was also a well-respected veteran on a championship-contending team.
In Smith’s first two seasons with the Cleveland Cavaliers, he averaged the most minutes per game of anyone on the team outside of their “big three” of Kyrie Irving, LeBron James and Kevin Love. When the Cavaliers won the NBA Finals in 2016, he averaged the third-most minutes on the team in the postseason, and in the seven-game series against the Golden State Warriors.
Suffice to say, he has plenty of meaningful experience playing in the postseason, and it was as recent as 2018. However, Smith also hasn’t played since then, and it’s unclear how big of a role he can play at 34 years old.
But even if Smith can’t provide much on the court, he has no shortage of knowledge to share with his teammates on the bench.
“Just being there before, not being surprised by anything, being able to — especially as you get older in your career — be vocal with your teammates and get them to understand certain situations in that crunch, trying to calm guys down,” Smith said. “Because a lot guys like to get too pumped up for the moment sometimes, and it kind of takes away from it. Just as much as the experience goes on on the court, being in the right situations, it goes on off the court as well.”
Smith’s postseason experience isn’t his most valuable attribute, though; it’s his postseason experience with James specifically. That experience has already helped Smith get acclimated with his new team.
“When I first worked out I kind of knew what to expect,” Smith said. “I was watching Danny, and KCP and Avery, watching the way they play, their system kind of mirrors our system a little bit in Cleveland. Obviously LeBron being the ballhandler and creating plays and stuff like that. So in that aspect I kind of knew what to expect.”
That being said, Smith knows that next few weeks will be anything but easy for him, especially when compared to the players who have been on the team for the majority of the season.
“It’s definitely going to be a challenge because, obviously, I haven’t played with these guys, I haven’t been around them as much,” Smith said. “I obviously watched the games, went to a few games, seen them play, but it’s different once you get out there, knowing guys’ tendencies, knowing when guys are going to cut or where they like to shoot the ball, or stuff like that.
“But that’s a little different for me, fortunately, because I’ve never been the guy to really try to set up guys anyway. That’s pretty much ‘Bron, and it’ll be AD’s job. So, for me, it will be: space the floor, get to the corners, play defense as much as possible and just try to stay out of the way.”
The one area Smith doesn’t feel like he needs a crash course in is how to talk to James and, on occasion, call him out.
Not only has Smith spent more time playing alongside James than anyone on the team, but he’s known James since high school too, so he’s comfortable pushing James’ buttons, and he believes he knows when to push them.
“Somebody at that level, you’ve just to create new challenges within themselves to keep pushing,” Smith said. “Now granted, he doesn’t need me to make those challenges. He’s already LeBron. But at the same time, it’s good to have somebody who is on your team to keep pushing you to be great.”
As Smith knows just as well as anyone, James has no problem pushing back, and if he does, Smith is hoping he can help his teammates understand that it doesn’t come from a bad place.
“Well for me firsthand, I know how ‘Bron can get pissed at people who don’t know how to deal with it,” Smith said. “So it gives that gap of understanding it’s still all about winning, because as we’ve all seen in (The Last Dance), people were so hard on MJ because he was so hard on his teammates. A case like LeBron it’s different because obviously he’s doing everything he wants to do to win and everything else, and it kind of comes off in the wrong way sometimes, and you need that bridge as a player to be able to go to the next player and say ‘hey look man, it’s nothing personal. It’s not about who is right or who is wrong. It’s just a good balance from him because he knows just as well as he can challenge everybody else.’
‘I’ll challenge him and vice-versa,” Smith continued. “When you get a person on that level, it’s kind of intimidating for a lot of people who don’t know how to challenge authority in that situation, but that’s something I’ve never really had a problem with, talking to him and stuff like that. So having those tough conversations with our teammates, I think that’s the biggest thing because that’s the only way we grow as men and as a team.”
Smith might not be exactly what the Lakers need, but he adds some value to the team’s bench both on and off the court. Hopefully that value shows in Orlando, and helps James in his quest for his fourth championship.