There was a brief moment right after the NBA trade deadline where it seemed like every single problem plaguing the Cleveland Cavaliers had been solved. This included the issues they were dealing with when it came to their starting point guard.
J.R. Smith, in the middle of one of the worst seasons of his career, had been in a lengthy funk. However, in his first three games with Cleveland’s new roster additions, he averaged 16 PPG. It seemed as though Smith, like the rest of his teammates, was reinvigorated by the locker room overhaul, suddenly looking like he was back on track.
Unfortunately, this was short-lived. Give or take a few silver linings, Smith has reverted into the slump he appeared to have left behind. As a result, coach Tyronn Lue seriously needs to consider taking him out of the starting lineup.
Ever since his three-game spurt, Smith’s production has plummeted. He’s averaged 6.0 PPG in the last five games, a stat inflated by his 19-point effort this past Saturday against the Denver Nuggets. It should be noted, he started said game not taking a single shot in the first half. Other than two impressive quarters, Smith has spent the past couple weeks either shooting terribly or not shooting at all.
Unfortunately, this is hardly a new development. For the better part of the season, Smith has been incredibly inefficient on offense, while looking like a defensive liability more often than not.
Despite all of this, he’s remained in the starting lineup. Lue has taken a “let him work his way out of it” approach, but we’re still waiting for this to prove successful. As a result, we keep seeing more nights with single-digit points on double-digit shot attempts.
Making matters worse is the fact Smith’s issues are now occurring off the court, as well. He was suspended last Friday for throwing soup at an assistant coach, leading some to worry if the antics which earned him a bad reputation across the NBA are popping back up. Though it was an isolated incident, Smith has a history of becoming a problem child, something he’s been able to avoid during his time in Cleveland.
To be fair, it was easy for Lue to defend keeping Smith in the starting rotation before the trade deadline, simply because there was no better option available. Kyle Korver is no longer at an age where he can log starters minutes, while Iman Shumpert had been hurt or ineffective for the bulk of the season before being dealt. Toss in the fact Dwyane Wade was proving more effective off the bench, and you can see why Lue chose to just let Smith work it out.
Now, one of the team’s new additions – guard Rodney Hood – is looking like a viable option to replace Smith. They’ll both be part of the starting lineup Lue has assembled while Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson recover from their respective injuries. However, once the former is healthy, a decision will need to be made between Smith and Hood.
It should be noted that, despite the headline, there’s one notable reason why benching Smith could be a concern. Simply put, getting pulled from the starting lineup might be the reason this spiral started in the first place.
Smith went into a shell earlier in the year when he was replaced by Wade, hardly hiding his displeasure. Despite getting his spot back within a couple weeks, he’s yet to look as though he’s fully recovered. With this in mind, you’re forced to wonder if benching Smith again will end up causing further damage.
If he continues struggling on the court, though, this is something Lue is going to have to risk. Letting Smith try and navigate through his funk has proven ineffective for four straight months. With a replacement option available, it’s time to start giving serious consideration to pulling him from the starting unit.
The concern about how Smith would react to this is valid. That he’s currently known less for scoring and more for throwing food at coaches is far more concerning.