I’ve been happily eating crow for almost two years now when it comes to J.R. Smith.
In the middle of a surprisingly mundane 2014-15 season, the Cleveland Cavaliers agreed to acquire him since the New York Knicks made such a thing a requirement if it meant getting Iman Shumpert, too. I couldn’t have been more concerned about the deal, simply because of the reputation Smith carried with him.
Throughout his career, we’ve seen an interesting back-and-forth between what many call “Good J.R.” and “Bad J.R.” There’s the J.R. Smith who won the 2013 Sixth Man of the Year and can be a deadly threat from behind the arc, and then there’s the J.R. Smith who catches headlines for genuinely bizarre on-court antics.
Knowing the Cavs at the time were looking very fragile, the idea of bringing a personality like Smith on board seemed like tossing a Molotov cocktail into the locker room. To my – and, let’s face it, everybody’s – surprise, he instead became a key member of the team. His sharpshooting helped Cleveland win an NBA Championship, as did his increased focus on defense, and he seemed to leave the kookiness back in Manhattan.
That was, at least, until last night. In an ugly loss to the Milwaukee Bucks, Bad J.R. made an unfortunate cameo, and it’s something the Cavs need to prevent as much as possible from here on out.
By now, you have to have seen the highlight. Smith took some time to go hug Milwaukee guard Jason Terry on the sideline, a friendly gesture that just so happened to take place right before the Bucks in-bounded the ball. Tony Snell, the man Smith was supposed to be guarding, happily enjoyed the most open shot he may have ever seen. Smith’s teammates hardly knew how to appropriately react.
Given an attempt to clarify the event after the game, Cleveland’s sharpshooter instead made things…weirder. Smith, oddly wearing a ski mask as part of his “alter ego,” claimed he didn’t know he was in the game. For obvious reasons, this is quite a strange response, especially considering he was on the opposite side of the court from Cleveland’s bench. Why else would he have been there if he wasn’t in the game?
Many have seen this odd deflection as his embarrassment about the mental gaffe, simply finding a unique way to admit as much.
Whatever the case may be, Smith has done well to avoid moments like last night since joining the Cavs. Seeing such a strange occurrence unfold, you can’t help but be a little worried about the potential of it happening again.
The lack of head-scratching antics has gone a long way in helping Smith endure himself among his Cleveland teammates. Instead of becoming a liability, he earned a starting role and proved to the players around him he could be reliable. It’s a major reason why many of the Cavaliers openly stumped for Smith’s contract extension.
At the same time, one of the key points of last night’s poorly-timed greeting was a few of those same teammates just staring at him in genuine confusion. While you couldn’t hear what Shumpert or Tristan Thompson were saying, their body language screamed “what the hell are you doing?”
In a best case scenario, this was simply a one-time dunce moment, laughed about down the road by everyone involved. Perhaps Smith is being negatively affected by the rough shooting slump he’s enduring and it caused him to just mentally check out for a minute.
Additionally, much of the frustration about last night’s antics can be tied to the lopsided beat-down Milwaukee threw the Cavs’ way. Had Smith’s snafu occurred in a win, maybe nobody is bringing it up as anything more than a funny slip-up he needs to avoid doing again.
At the same time, his ski-masked alter ego claiming he didn’t even know he was on the court makes you a little nervous it could be more than that. That the same Bad J.R., the one who ran into issues in New York when he continually untied the shoe-laces of opponents despite being fined for it, might be creeping into the picture.
Maybe there wouldn’t be any concern had he just owned up to last night’s mistake. “Yep, that sure was dumb, wasn’t it? Won’t happen again.” It’s not fun to admit you made a blunder, but it’s just weird when you pretend it didn’t happen or try and sweep it under the rug.
It’s these kind of things that had people worried about Smith’s arrival to Cleveland back in early 2015. The whole “J.R. being J.R.” routine which saddled him while he was in New York. One can only hope this was just a blip on the radar and not something more.