To understand where J.R. Smith is right now, one has to understand where he’s been.
Early on during the Lakers’ time in the bubble, the realization seemed to hit him. As he sat in his hotel room talking to teammate Danny Green about his emotional state over the nearly two years it’s been since he suited up in an NBA game, Smith started to shift his gaze, looking off into the distance as if to reminisce about how far he’d come just to be in the hotel desk chair he was currently occupying in the Gran Destino resort at Disney World.
Smith had gone from being banished from the team he helped win its first and only championship, to getting so tired of the lack of interest in him that he told his agent, Rich Paul, to stop calling him unless a team reached out. Before the bubble, the closest he’d had to competition during his hiatus was competitive bike rides with his dad and brother. It was a tough journey to get to this point.
“Mentally I was in a state of just straight depression. I couldn’t play the game that I loved at the highest level that I’m accustomed to playing at,” Smith said on Green’s “Inside the Green Room” podcast.
Making matters more frustrating for Smith was that he wasn’t hurt. He wasn’t suspended. He knew he could still play, too, and would see team executives and coaches in the stands when he was working out against and outplaying younger players they were considering drafting or monitoring the development of. They just didn’t call.
“At the time, I was going through it,” Smith said of seeing those NBA figures watching him. “You know flat out I just dogged this kid in your whole workout that you just came to see, and I just walk out of the gym with nothing? Like you don’t think twice to call?
“When you can’t even get that, that’s when you just feel like you’ve hit rock bottom because it’s just like no matter what, you’re not good enough. And it’s not that your game is not good enough, it’s that you as a person is not good enough.”
The tide eventually shifted for Smith, but only on what qualified as a lucky break for him. He was the last player to join the Lakers before the bubble, and the team only had an open roster spot because Avery Bradley had opted out of the NBA restart. Smith was one decision away from having his absence from the league extended beyond how long it had already been since he’d played meaningful basketball.
Even he would probably admit he hasn’t made the best first impression. The man his teammates call “Swish” hasn’t shown the reason for his nickname very frequently, averaging just 2.8 points on an abysmal 31.8% shooting (including hitting only one of his 11 threes) in 79 minutes played over his six appearances for the Lakers in the bubble.
Those may not be numbers that imply a ton of comfort from Smith as he adjusts to his new role, but he says it’s quite the opposite. After so long away from the league, he is just content and excited to be on this team, and simply working and waiting for his production to reflect that.
“I know it hasn’t shown in my play, but I’ve definitely gotten acclimated,” Smith said after the Lakers’ loss to the Kings on Thursday. “It’s so much easier when you have a dialogue and you can go to players and talk to players, and everybody is on the same page, and everybody has the same goal to win a championship.
“Fortunately they put a great team together with cohesiveness and communication, where guys are able to come to one another and talk to one another. It just made it that much easier for me to fit right in.”
Smith isn’t exaggerating about his contentment with his fit not showing in his play, though. The Lakers have been outscored by 16.7 points per 100 possessions when he’s played in the bubble. For context, that is nearly twice as bad as the league-worst Warriors’ net rating of -8.6.
To Smith’s credit, the Lakers have been bad when he’s off the floor too, getting outscored by 3.3 points per 100 possessions when he sits, and some of these numbers are skewed by the small sample size and weird circumstances of the team having little to play for so far in the bubble. Smith clearly does not actually make the Lakers twice as bad as the worst team in the league.
With that said, Smith’s play hasn’t exactly made an argument for him to get extended minutes or a consistent role in the rotation during the playoffs, and that’s a reality he’s willing to accept.
“I’m not going to lie, it’s tough,” Smith said, but he understands here he’s at.
“As you get older, you get a little smarter, a little wiser,” Smith said. “I think I’m the second or third oldest guy on the team. We got a young kid named Talen (Horton-Tucker) and he’s 19. He makes a few mistakes and stuff like that, and so many times I tell him, I go back to being 18 and being in this league, and not understanding my role, my job or what I was supposed to be doing.
“Fortunately at 34 going on 35, I’ve learned my role as a player and as a person. I know who I am. I’m very confident in that,” Smith continued. “If I’m out there 35 minutes or I don’t play at all, I know my contribution to the team is just as (big) as if I did play.”
One element that could potentially help Smith when he does play would be getting paired more with his former Cleveland Cavaliers teammate and reaction-meme muse, LeBron James. Of the 79 minutes Smith has played so far, only 29 have come with James on the floor. In a quirk of small sample size theater, Smith is shooting 100% from the floor when James plays (1-1) and 6-21 (28.6%) when James sits.
Is some of that just randomness? Absolutely. And as evidenced by his playing rotation so far, Vogel does think that Smith has utility without James sharing the floor with him.
“He’s a basketball player. He doesn’t need to play with LeBron James,” Vogel said last week, even while acknowledging that Smith does have utility alongside his star, too.
“LeBron is one of the best drive-and-kick passers in the history of the game,” Vogel continued. “We want to have as many weapons on the back side as we can, so we’ll certainly consider having some of his minutes with LeBron.”
But whether that happens, or whether Smith gets more minutes at all, he feels like he can impact the Lakers regardless. If that amounts to him being a practice player who helps make his teammates better off the floor more than he does on, so be it. After two years away from the game he loved and going through times where he thought he might be done as a pro, he’s welcoming whatever comes his way during his return to the NBA.
“I’ve forgotten so much about this game that other guys will never know,” Smith said. “I’m in a fortunate position where if I do play I can have an impact, and if I don’t play I can still make pretty much the same impact. It’s a great feeling.”