This headline was inevitable. As important as LeBron James and Kyrie Irving were to the Cleveland Cavaliers’ title this season, J.R. Smith was just as key a cog as anyone else.
Marc Stein broke the news of Smith resigning with the Cavs at the tune of $57 million for four years. Both parties spent the entire summer jostling back-and-forth in contracts talks, but there was roughly a $5 million difference between the two.
The self-proclaimed dolphin was a dazzling three-point shooter for the Cavs last year, and he nailed 204 threes (seventh in the league) at a 40 percent clip–and that was through 77 regular season games. Once the postseason came, J.R. was much more lethal.
In 21 playoff games, Smith buried 43 percent of his treys, which included 35.6 percent in the Finals against Golden State. Furthermore, he elevated his defense to a level no one was accustomed to seeing, and he did a good job chasing around Klay Thompson and keeping him limited, for the most part.
Now that he’s back, Cleveland is even closer to repeating as NBA champs.
Had Smith not resigned, the likely starting two would’ve been Iman Shumpert. Although he’s a solid rotation guy, he doesn’t bring the two-way dynamic that Smith brings, and Cleveland would’ve suffered offensively with him on the court.
Now that Smith is back, much to the expected delight of LeBron James, Tyronn Lue can use various lineups throughout the season. Should Cleveland elect to go small, their lineup would look something like this:
- PG: Kyrie Irving
- SG: J.R. Smith
- SF: Mike Dunleavy/Iman Shumpert
- PF: LeBron James
- C: Tristan Thompson
Kevin Love might crack the small ball rotation, but his history of being a lackluster defender inhibits him from regularly playing with this unit. During the regular season, it won’t matter as much but, let’s be objective here: this hypothetical lineup was constructed to matchup against the super-team on the West Coast.
A third-straight meeting between the Bay and the ‘Land is expected and anticipated. On talent alone, Golden State can waltz through the first three rounds of the postseason, but it takes more than that to be crowned champions, and that’s exhibited by the upset of the Miami Heat by the Dallas Mavericks in 2011.
Some of that falls on James, who played well below his MVP-level, but credit must go toward Dallas whose units played more cohesively and made fine adjustments. Much like how Lue adapted his gameplan as the series progressed against Golden State.
Should they both meet, here’s how their small lineups would matchup:
- PG: Kyrie Irving vs. Stephen Curry
- SG: J.R. Smith vs. Klay Thompson
- SF: Mike Dunleavy/Iman Shumpert vs. Andre Iguodala
- PF: LeBron James vs. Kevin Durant (must-see)
- C: Tristan Thompson vs. Draymond Green
The Warriors lineup has the edge in talent, but they had the edge in talent last year, too. Cleveland’s lineup doesn’t change unless Dunleavy sees extended time, and it worked out well for them last year. Switching was seamless, and the “bigs” had no problem stepping out on the perimeter and matching up against the guards; Thompson played Curry remarkably well out of the pick-and-roll.
Execution is the last part of the puzzle. There’s no getting around the fact that James and Irving outplayed Golden State last year, but if they’re in a position like that again, it’ll be expected to see a super-human effort.
If Cleveland doesn’t execute when it counts, the Dubs will return to champion status; if Golden State can’t gel and the Cavs take advantage, a second straight Larry O’Brien trophy will be brought to Ohio.
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