J.R. Smith Injury Gives Cleveland Cavaliers’ Reserve Guards a Chance to Prove Themselves

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This was probably not what J.R. Smith was hoping for when he and the Cleveland Cavaliers finally agreed on a new contract this offseason.

After finally getting the long-term deal he and many others felt he deserved, Smith’s season has gotten off to an incredibly bumpy start. He’s endured a nasty shooting slump, a knee injury and significant struggles to get back into game shape after ending his holdout just weeks before the year got underway. Unfortunately, things only got worse for him last night.

Smith hurt his right thumb midway through Cleveland’s matchup with the Milwaukee Bucks. Though images taken of the injury were deemed inclusive last night, it was announced this morning that he suffered a fracture which will need to be repaired via surgery. His attempts to get himself back on track this season will now be delayed four to six weeks.

While the Cavs can be thankful he won’t be sidelined terribly long, Smith’s absence certainly puts the team in a bind. Already struggling with limited backcourt depth, Cleveland now has to endure the next month and a half without its starting shooting guard.

Though there aren’t too many silver linings with Smith’s injury, one can be found in the opportunity it provides for some of the Cavs’ untested backups. Cleveland has a handful of players who can see this situation as a chance to prove themselves much earlier than they might have expected.

Right now, it appears Smith’s spot in the starting lineup will be given to backup shooting guard DeAndre Liggins. While not exactly somebody you’d expect to be starting on a championship-caliber team, he’s proven serviceable when filling the void earlier this year when Smith was recovering from his knee injury.

That said, the Cavs need someone who can provide at least some of the instant offense Smith is capable of brining to the table. Statistically speaking, that person doesn’t appear to be Liggins. While he’s shown impressive skills on the defensive side of the court, he’s not one for lighting up the scoreboard, averaging just 2.9 points per game this year.

If Liggins can’t be relied upon to ease the burden of Cleveland’s star players, someone else will need to step up. The obvious candidates, on paper at least, are guards Jordan McRae and Kay Felder.

McRae has been a bit of a wild card in his short time with the Cavs. He proved to be quite a scoring machine during the most recent summer league, leading the team in points almost every game. However, now facing tougher competition in the regular season, his offense hasn’t been nearly as potent.

As for Felder, one wouldn’t think the diminutive point guard would see increased playing time in Smith’s absence, especially since the two play different positions. That said, coach Tyronn Lue will likely have to get creative with his lineups, meaning the rookie could get a chance at more minutes. The team also desperately needs to find a backup for Kyrie Irving, so don’t be surprised if Smith’s absence forces Cleveland to give Felder a more serious audition. He hasn’t seen a ton of action this season, but impressed many with a 14-point effort last week against the Memphis Grizzlies.

While Smith’s injury should certainly be seen as an opportunity for Liggins, McRae and Felder, this window might not be open for long. The Cavs can’t afford to let this setback result in a slump, and they’re already relying too heavily on their Big 3 for most of the offense. Don’t be surprised if Smith’s absence, combined with a few bad losses, forces Cavs GM David Griffin to start working the trade market.

This is why someone from Cleveland’s backup backcourt needs to seize the chance to shine as soon as possible. While Smith may be out for up to a month and a half, it’s tough to believe the Cavs’ front office will wait that long to see if there’s an internal solution.

Whether it be the Liggins, McRae or Felder, someone needs to up their contributions and help keep this team afloat while Smith heals. Neither of them may get a shot like this again anytime soon.

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