After being traded from the New York Knicks to the Cleveland Cavaliers early last season, J.R. Smith almost instantly picked up his level of play, becoming an ever-willing high-volume 3-point sniper for a Cavs club that rolled through the Eastern Conference to the NBA Finals before falling to the Golden State Warriors. Asked to account for the turnaround in his fortunes once he arrived in Ohio, Smith — who, as you might have heard, enjoyed sampling the nightlife a bit during his time with the Knicks — attributed his "one man's trash is another man's treasure" turnaround to a renewed focus spurred by there being "nothing but basketball" in Cleveland to divert his attention.
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We all took that as a gentle, loving dig at the relative small-town nature of Cleveland in comparison to big, bad, glitzy and glamorous New York City ... and, to some degree, it was. As Smith tells Devin Friedman in a charming and insightful new feature in GQ, the prospect of moving from New York to Cleveland seemed daunting, to put it mildly:
As we drove here, I asked J.R. what he thought when he was traded. Were you, I said, like, “Oh man, I have to live in Cleveland?”
“Honestly?” he said, piloting his German spacecar through a desolate web of interstates. “I was petrified. Seriously. I didn't know what to expect. I thought: The weather is gonna be horrible. There's going to be nowhere to go out to eat. There's going to be nowhere to party.” [...]
Is it the last place, I asked, voicing the fear we all have as Cleveland sports fans, people want to play?
“There,” J.R. said. “And probably Utah.”
And yet, the "nothing but basketball" focus that spurred Smith's quick acclimation to Cleveland and his near-instantaneous return to the form that won him 2012-13 NBA Sixth Man of the Year honors with New York might have had less to do with a paucity of temptations than with the Cavaliers' exceedingly compelling 6-foot-8, 260-pound, MVP-award- and championship-winning reason to keep your nose to the grindstone. More from Friedman:
I don't know if everything they say about how LeBron [James] is the real G.M. of the Cavs is true. But it is a team that he's built. Everyone around LeBron knows he is lucky to be here, anointed.
“You would never go out and party on this team,” J.R. says in the midst of telling me how much he loves Cleveland, what an underestimated city it is. “Once you're on a team like this, you're just so locked in. When you see someone like LeBron in the gym around the clock? Usually it's the guys who want to get better so they can get more playing time who are always in the gym. But if you've got four MVPs, two championships, two Finals MVPs…”
Is there a sense of expectation from him?
“Oh, for sure. If you're here for any other reason than to get better and help us win, then you're here for the wrong reason. And he'll tell anybody that — he doesn't care. You could be mad at him or whatever. If you're not here to win? Time for you to go.”
JR Smith on leadership: "Melo is more of an 'I'll show you,' as opposed to Bron is more of an 'I'll tell you, then I'll show you."
— Ethan J. Skolnick (@EthanJSkolnick) January 20, 2015
He's also seemed genuinely appreciative of the fact that when Cavaliers general manager David Griffin broached the topic of trading for Smith, who'd largely worn out his welcome in New York, as a means of also getting the long-armed and quick-footed Iman Shumpert to help bolster the Cavaliers' leaky perimeter defense, James nodded his head and opened his arms. From Brian Windhorst of ESPN.com:
The thought of getting two starter-quality wings nearly for free -- a few end-of-the-bench players and a second-round pick four years in the future -- was tantalizing. But with any supposed great deal there were queasy conditions. They didn't need to hire an investigative firm to compile a dossier on Smith -- his history of bad decisions, reckless behavior and wildly inconsistent play was well known to all.
So Griffin went to James.
"Get him here and I'll take care of it," James said Wednesday night, recalling the pivotal discussion.
To James, the character issues weren't just secondary, they didn't matter. He saw a chance to grab the type of shooter he loves to play with, one with a quick release and endless confidence. James has been striving to get guys like this as teammates for a decade or so now. The Cavs needed talent at that position and Smith was a talent and a contemporary whom James felt he could relate.
"I knew the man he was and I didn't really care about what everybody else thought of him," James said. "Our front office, they have the last say. ... I was definitely all for it."
With James paving the way, drawing tons of defensive attention and creating all sorts of open shots — which might not be J.R.'s favorites, but we all have our crosses to bear — Smith had a smooth transition to his new team and quickly began to look like an absolute steal.
"I've known him for a long time, but finally being on the same team and being able to get together on and off the court, it's definitely better than I could imagine," Smith said in March, according to Joe Vardon of the Northeast Ohio Media Group.
After a postseason run that included some ups, a great many more downs, and a re-signed in Cleveland (albeit after opting out of the final year of his deal to test the market for his services, only to find it cool and come back to the Cavs at a lower average annual salary, but with a bit more flexibility) to continue serving as a supporting piece behind James, Kevin Love and the soon-to-be-returning Kyrie Irving for a club with designs on a second straight Finals trip. With Irving still sidelined, Shumpert out for most of the season to date, and big men Timofey Mozgov and Anderson Varejao coming off surgery, Cleveland hasn't always looked like a world-beating squad yet this season, much to James' consternation. Yet they'll still enter Thursday's nationally televised matchup with Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and the Oklahoma City Thunder owning the East's best record, the NBA's No. 4 offense and plenty of weapons on both ends of the court, including Smith.
He hasn't yet looked as good in wine and gold this season as he did last, with his per-game numbers dropping across the board along with his shooting percentages. But Smith — now 30, having spent a full dozen years in the professional ranks and evidently eager to find some semblance of stability after a career spent careening back and forth between highlights and headaches — seems committed to pulling out of his skid, ending this season on a more positive note than he did the last one, and finding a happy ending for one of the most absurd stories in recent basketball memory. From Friedman:
How do you feel about your career at this point? I ask.
“Disheartened, honestly. Yeah, for sure.” [...] “I guess if I could write my ending, it would be: ‘Even though he was a quote-unquote knucklehead, he finally got it right.’”
If he gets there, it seems, he'll have done so with the help of the kind of friend and teammate for whom you pass up good times tonight in favor of even greater days ahead.
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