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Lakers, J.R. Smith, LeBron James

Editorials

Should the Lakers reunite J.R. Smith with LeBron James in Los Angeles?

Should the Lakers reunite J.R. Smith with LeBron James in Los Angeles?

The Los Angeles Lakers are one of the more intriguing teams in the NBA this season. They went out and got LeBron James, and after initially losing their first three games, are starting to resemble a dangerous team in the Western Conference. The Lakers, with James being a big reason why, have developed into one of the best offensive teams in the league, but they still could use some perimeter shooting, which is what J.R. Smith can provide.

Smith was James’ teammate on the Cleveland Cavaliers from mid-2014-15 until James’ departure in July of 2018 to the Lakers. While Smith has had his share of hiccups over the course of his career, he was a much better teammate with James on his team leading the way. Without James on the Cavs this year, though, Smith and Cleveland haven’t been seeing eye-to-eye.

Earlier this month, Smith candidly said that he wants to be traded by the Cavaliers, when asked, per Sporting News’ Jordan Heck, and now, Cleveland is working to grant Smith his wish.

Following that, Smith aired his frustration to The Athletic’s Jason Lloyd, who demonstrated how Smith believes “the [Cavs’] goal is to develop and lose to get lottery picks.”

Then shortly after on Tuesday, The Athletic’s Joe Vardon reported that Smith “will no longer be actively with the Cavs,” and he and Cleveland are working to trade him; in addition, “the two sides are not working on a buyout at this time.”

Moving Smith is not going to be the simplest thing for the Cavaliers, though, as he is making over $14.7 million this season, per Spotrac. On the bright side for the Lakers, who could use more consistency from the perimeter, is that Smith’s contract only has a guarantee of $3.87 million.

Why that first $14 million-plus number is not realistically a bargain, it’s not the worst albatross in the world if James can get Smith playing how he’s capable of. This season for the Cavaliers, who are the league’s worst team at 2-13, Smith does not appear to be fully engaged.

He’s averaging just 6.7 points per game on 34.2 percent shooting (which would both be career-lows for a season-long sample size), and playing on a team with little spacing and even less playmaking has crippled Smith’s efficiency. He’s having to routinely take tough often long two-point shots via stepbacks, and that’s something Smith won’t be forced to do often in L.A. with the playmaking of James, Lonzo Ball, and Lance Stephenson.

The Lakers are currently in a good spot on the offensive end of the ball, as they are ninth in offensive rating and fifth in effective field goal percentage, per NBA.com. Los Angeles is second in the NBA in paint scoring, too.

Lakers, LeBron James, Lonzo Ball, J.R. Smith, Blazers

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While it’s been a bit surprising to see a James-led team be placed fourth in the league in pace with the way he typically wants to monopolize decision-making, the high-pace approach has taken advantage of the young contributors’ athleticism (namely Ball, Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma and Josh Hart).

Rajon Rondo (6.5 assists per game) and Ingram (2.3 assists per game) have been solid playmakers for the Lakers, too, which has taken some of the burden off James and Ball.

Stephenson and the uber-efficient JaVale McGee (who is averaging 13.4 points per game on a 63.9 percent true shooting clip) have also gotten into the high-pace act, and have been huge spark-plugs for Los Angeles. The Lakers could still use a veteran three-point shooter to balance out their paint-scoring, though.

Kentavious Caldwell-Pope has not really been too effective to this point as one of L.A.’s key three-point marksman, as he’s hitting just 1.1 threes per game and shooting only 33.3 percent from deep. Caldwell-Pope has played solid defense, but in recent games, he hasn’t been playing as often.

With “KCP” making $12 million this year on an expiring deal, per Spotrac, and with him being on a one-year deal, a Smith-for-KCP swap could be a feasible way to improve both the Cavaliers’ and Lakers’ situations. It won’t be totally simple from the Caldwell-Pope side of things, either, though, with his trade bonus and “de-facto trade no-trade clause,” per Real GM’s Keith Smith (h/t Lonzo Wire’s Christian Rivas).

A big selling pitch to Caldwell-Pope is the fact his trade bonus would bump his salary up to the aforementioned $13.8 million. Yes, he would have to go to Cleveland and his role would be unclear in a rebuilding situation, but he’ll be an unrestricted free agent in the summer, in a situation where he could waive Cleveland good-bye, anyhow.

Yes, Caldwell-Pope shares the same agent as James and actually Smith, in Rich Paul, so he’ll get paid handsomely as a three-and-D contributor again next summer, so I believe he could be convinced; he’s fallen out of the Lakers’ rotation as of late.

Bouncing back to the Smith side of things, James seemed to be a huge reason that Smith was bought in when the two were teammates in Cleveland, and with their close relationship and KCP being historically inconsistent (as a lifetime 34.5 percent three-pointer shooter, per Basketball Reference) and not nearly having the ceiling Smith has, this would be a reasonable risk to take for L.A.

Though Smith is coming off back-to-back seasons with his two lowest PER’s of his career, if he’s given a similar minutes share to Caldwell-Pope of less than 20 minutes per game, his value could be maximized. Smith also has valuable postseason experience, and given that the Lakers’ reliance on their young pieces provides potential uncertainty down the road, adding Smith could bring another proven big-stage perimeter shooter.

Yes, Smith did have a horrendous NBA Finals Game 1 blunder in which he reportedly didn’t know the score after securing an offensive rebound and dribbling out the clock in a tie game, in which the Golden State Warriors cruised in overtime and eventually swept Cleveland.

That was a while ago, now, though in today’s standards, and with Smith’s laundry list of gafs in his career, it won’t linger for him. He’s a career 37.3 percent three-point shooter with 5.3 attempts per game in 971 games and has a three-point rate of 49.5 percent (per Basketball Reference), so the guy has proven he can shoot the ball from deep.

 

Plus, with James as Smith’s leader, he’s played much better defense, in particular against opposing perimeter shooters on the wing.

Smith on the Lakers might be a perfect fit alongside his buddy in James, and the leadership of Tyson Chandler wouldn’t hurt, either.