This week, the Lakers took a shovel to the NBA’s pile of available guards once again, turning over what they’d been mulling through since 2018—the Feltons, the Crawfords, and the Calderons—and remembered something that all the memes forgot: J.R. Smith can still play basketball. Los Angeles is finalizing a deal with Smith to replace Avery Bradley, ESPN reported Monday, after the latter opted out of the NBA’s Disney restart last week.
Smith, 34, last played in the NBA for the Cavaliers in November 2018. Without LeBron James, Smith and the team had grown apart. Cleveland was pushing for a buyout amid a rebuild. The idea was quickly rejected by Smith, who twice asked to be traded instead. He said, “I don’t want my legacy to be remembered like that in Cleveland. I don’t think that’s fair to the people I see every single day walking around the arena.” (The buyout would’ve also meant sacrificing money from his four-year, $57 million contract.) The Cavs extradited Smith after that, thanked him for his time, and forced him off the NBA grid.
The last thing the basketball world remembers about J.R. Smith is him messing up. It was Game 1 of the 2018 Finals against the Warriors. Fourth quarter. Tie game. With 4.7 seconds left, Smith miraculously grabbed the rebound from George Hill’s missed free throw. The situation called for him to find the open man or shoot; instead, Smith dribbled to the perimeter. (Presumably because he forgot the score, though when he was asked about it the next day, Smith said, “After thinking about it a lot the last 24 hours… I can’t say I was sure of anything at that point.”) LeBron was feet away, jumping up and down, frantically pointing for him to push it inside. Smith finally passed to Hill in the corner, but it was too late.
A photographer captured LeBron’s displeasure with Smith at the end of the fourth in an iconic shot. LeBron is pointing with both hands toward the basket, his face scrunched in disbelief, his body language reading, What the fuck are you doing?; Smith, though his back is turned in the shot, is clearly open-mouthed and wondering the same. It was tragic, but it was the meme of the summer:
JR Smith: I was tryna find Kyrie— Charlie Kaczorowski (@charlie13kacz) June 1, 2018
LeBron: KYRIE IN BOSTON pic.twitter.com/g9ELI5DR7F
Regulation came to an end and Cleveland couldn’t slay the giants in overtime. The Cavs lost the game and were eventually swept; even though I remember particular runs and plays from Games 2-4, that possession is rendered in my mind as the end of the series. To NBA fans, the mistake was classic J.R. Smith. Many people–myself included—love this league for its personalities. We don’t know these players, but we desperately want to. So we reduce them to the few defining traits we can see on our screens. Kawhi Leonard, for example, is quiet. We find that hilarious. He prefers privacy; because of this, we say he’s emotionless, monotone, boring, a robot. Smith’s character was even easier to caricaturize. Google “J.R. Smith’s best moments,” and the top searches are YouTube videos “J.R. Smith’s funniest moments” and “J.R. Smith’s dumbest moments.” It’s fueled, in part, by past J.R.isms—walking shirtless in the 2016 Championship parade, referring to his dick as “the pipe,” being suspended for marijuana use, squinting his eyes with his mouth agape.
When the news dropped last Tuesday that Smith might be signed by the Lakers, people began tweeting a flurry of cracks at his expense, myself included, none particularly clever or original, in the hopes of being the funniest person in the proverbial room. In the midst of trying to impress each other, NBA Twitter failed to realize what this meant for Smith. The Lakers have the best odds to win the championship this season. Smith, after costing LeBron a series-changing Finals game, is now in a position to help him win another, as he did in 2016.
The two are good together. Being one of “LeBron’s guys” changes a career. The stakes are higher and the role is specialized; so long as he trusts you, you have a job. Through four seasons with Cleveland (let’s forget about 2018-19 for a second), Smith was encouraged to embrace his shot-happy persona. What LeBron needs is for his game to be catered to: His teammates aren’t just getting out of the way, they’re greasing the runway. LeBron needs a two-guard who is best suited for a supporting role—shooting, scoring, and defending—but is still capable of creating when called on. He loved Smith for these reasons, who earned his keep on the perimeter through spot-up shooting and reliable defense, most notably during the 2016 championship run. Smith still holds the Cavs record for most 3s made in a half with six, which he set against the Hawks in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference semifinals. “J.R., he’s the only one on the team that has the ultra-green light,” LeBron said after that game. “It’s like fluorescent.”
Before Smith was sent to Cleveland in 2015, New York struggled to find any team interested in the former Sixth Man of the Year. Finally, Iman Shumpert was tossed in the offer, and the two wings became Cavaliers. LeBron remembered it differently—he was in awe at New York’s generosity to include Smith in the deal. Playing purely to complement LeBron saved Smith’s career once already—though he won’t be the prized role player on the Lakers. Outside of LeBron and Anthony Davis, the roster is composed entirely of them: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Rajon Rondo, Quinn Cook, Danny Green, Alex Caruso, and Dion Waiters. Since the end in Cleveland, it’s been a trend for LeBron teams to be tailor-made of him, another star, and a plethora of mid-level support. It’s resulted in frequent lower-level power shifts. When one player is playing relatively well—let’s call this the Caruso theory—he gets much more attention from the team than he would on another roster. Los Angeles is the top seed in the West and is only seven games away from the playoffs; it likely won’t play its stars too much. One hot hand, and Smith could see real minutes in the postseason.
A year after the Game 1 incident against the Warriors, The Undefeated’s Jesse Washington talked to Smith about the moment. Washington likened it to Chris Webber’s timeout gaffe, but worse: Webber did not have an exhaustive list of past mistakes like Smith. (The list, by the way, is as unusual as it is lengthy: fined for untying an opponent’s shoes, fined for throwing soup, leaving the player he’s supposed to be defending to say hello to someone on the other bench.) The 2018 Finals game wasn’t even the first time Smith had forgotten the score of a game.
“I’ve messed up so many times in my life,” Smith told Washington. “I mean, I can’t just point at one thing to be mad at.” Smith recovered from the worst moment of his career by accepting it as one of many past mistakes, one of more to come. Almost three years later, potentially joining LeBron for another playoff run, it’s a good time to remember that J.R. Smith isn’t a predetermined meme.