J.R. Smith Is Cooking With Gas


We all know by now how J.R. Smith’s arrival changed the team. If you have eyes, you’ve noticed those quick hands and a three-point stroke that heats up justlikethat. He wasn’t going to start but came in and put that idea to rest. Perhaps he knew a better defensive guy was right behind him and that Shumpert was ticketed to start, so he found another level than we’ve ever see him play at defensively.

Smith is a surprisingly good off-the-ball defender and less competent in the pick-and-roll. He’s a savvy vet who really knows how to get his hands in the passing lanes but maybe has a little trouble getting over the top of a good pick. On the other hand he looks pretty good going through screens. This is just eye-test, we don’t have metrics. But Smith’s defense remains a splendid bonus, like your swanky apartment’s hot next-door-neighbor. Smith’s simply here to chew gum and hit threes, and he’s all outta gum.

It went under-remarked at the time, but the Cavaliers started the season as a pretty damn mediocre three-point shooting team, and that’s being generous. Prior to Smith’s arrival the team was shooting 34.5% from behind the arc, good for 18th in the league. Of the twelve teams below them at that point, only Rockets at 34.4% (at that point) are bound for one of the top 7 seeds in the playoffs.

There’s a reason for this, of course. The NBA is hotter for threes than Chris Fedor is for Taylor Swift, and that’s saying something. It’s more than a fad, it’s simple reality. The three-pointer is worth more than the two-pointer and a lot easier to convert efficiently.

This is the Moneyball-ing of basketball which has to some extent eradicated the inefficient mid-range jumper. Last year, plays between the restricted area (right in front of the basket) and arc were converted at a 39.4% rate, for a value of .79 per shot (i.e. double the conversion rate). But teams converted three-pointers at a much more efficient rate – 36%, good for 1.08 per shot (i.e. three times the conversion rate). It just makes sense to shoot them more often.

Of course, if you’ve watched basketball for the last decade you’ve noticed the shot’s steady ascendance from 18.7% of all shots in 2003-2004 to 25.9% last year, a forty percent increase. Of the fifteen best offenses last year, fourteen were in the top ten in either shooting percentage or frequency from beyond the arc. It’s gotten to where teams only want shots at the rim or from behind the line, which of course has lead to the high frequency use of the pick & roll since it allows a high quotient of drive-and-dish threes.

When you get right down to it, this is one of the main reasons the ballgame devolves into LeBron James or Kyrie Irving making pick-and-roll drives at the basket in the final minutes of ballgames: It’s statistically your best play. That’s doubly true when you have two of the best penetrators in the league. Now certainly the Cavs could run post-up through Love and use James and Irving as spot-up three-point shooters and cutters, which they’re both good at to varying degrees, but that’s sort of a waste of their talents, so instead it’s Love whose talents get “wasted.”

(And this is probably more of a regular season thing as well. It could very well change come playoffs when games slow down and teams get more sophisticated in their schemes and familiarity sets in during a seven-game series. This forces teams to run different options, some of which will undoubtedly exploit Love in post-up mismatches.)

We’ve strayed momentarily from our central premise, which is the value of J.R. Smith. The Cavs were 12th in three-point frequency and 18th in accuracy. Since his arrival, the Cavaliers are 5th in accuracy and second in frequency. Smith has shot 39.5% from three since his arrival, accounting (2.8-7.0/gm) for nearly a quarter of the team’s 30.5 attempts and 11.5 makes from three. For the season, the Cavs taking and converting the sixth most Catch & Shoot threes in the league.

Since coming to Cleveland, Smith has converted 2.2 (42.4%) C&S triples a night tied with Wes Matthews and Klay Thompson, just behind Kyle Korver (2.7/gm, 50.3%). Kevin Love is 14th at 1.8/gm (only making 36.6%), making the Cavaliers on the Rockets (Beverley & Ariza, 1.9 each) the only teams with two players in the top 15.

Just pause on that for a moment. We made a trade in which we acquired a player nearly as good as Danny Green or JJ Redick at converting three-pointers, and they were the throw-in. Instead it’s the defense of Shumpert that winds up the throw-in, and that’s pretty spectacular. Shumpert is lowering players’ shooting percentages from outside 15’ by 7.4%, and together Smith and Shumpert are generating almost three steals/game.

For your edification here are J.R. Smith’s seven jumpers from Sunday.

We want to apologize for the lack of game analysis of this weekend’s games. This is not our primary or even secondary source of income. There were some things that needed taking care of, and that’s what happened. It’s a part of changes that are coming for this space.

Coming into this, we had no real idea how we wanted to approach this other than to try to bring something lacking in beat reporting. Along the way we’ve discovered some things we like to do and some things we’re good at with the intent of bringing the two together.

With the season shifting gears, we will too. Where in the past we tried to cram team analysis into the game analysis because that was my space for it, we’ve decided to shift to briefer game analysis with these sort of team/basketball analysis columns filling the other weekday slots.

This should make the game analysis shorter (and quicker), create content consistently through the week, while making the game analysis a quicker, cleaner read. We hope you like it. As always you can follow me on Twitter @CRS_1ne and find my columns now daily in the Cleveland Scene blog. 

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