The Cavaliers are still atop the Eastern Conference, but the past month has been a mess. How much can be attributed to the JR Smith injury?
JR Smith moved into Cleveland like a hurricane. He burst into the starting lineup while Iman Shumpert recovered from injury and never looked back. He immediately improved his stats - Points, FG%, Win Shares, Plus/Minus, and Rebounds immediately went up in Cleveland. He was one of the only guys not named LeBron James who made it through the 2015 NBA Finals in one piece and it kept him in the starting lineup for the 2015-16 campaign.
In that season, of course, he endeared himself to the Cavalier faithful, had the lowest turnover percentage of his career, shot 40% from beyond the arc, and played all-out hustle-defense throughout the season. The Cavs won the title, JR Smith gave a tear-jerking speech at the podium, famously stopped wearing shirts, and was rewarded with a four-year $57 million contract.
Life was good.
The contract was seen as a bit much, but Smith used the leverage he had by being a client of LeBron's management group and secure the money he felt he deserved. I wrote on multiple occasions that I supported the big contract, but there was little doubt that he'd continue to play well.
JR tweaked his ankle early this season and missed three games. There was a small fear that it could linger, but it didn't and he was quickly back in the lineup. Then came the thumb injury.
Since the thumb injury, things have taken a turn. But how bad has it been?
The Cavaliers are 16-5 this year when JR Smith is in the lineup. Prior to the injury, the Cavaliers were shooting 40% from deep as a team, outscoring their opponents by about 7 points per 100 possessions, and taking care of the basketball. Below are the simple stat-line and the advanced stat-line for the team before JR went down.
Since then...not so much.
The Cavs are 17-10 without JR Smith (16-10 before the Minnesota win Wednesday night). Scoring is down. Shooting percentage is down. Plus/Minus is down. Win percentage is down. Assist to turnover percentage is down. The PIE stat is NBA.com's way of tracking how well a team is doing overall with one statistic. 50% means you're a dead-average team. If you're over 50%, that means you're likely to be a winning team. The Cavs' PIE is, of course, down.
In short, nearly every team statistic has gotten worse.
It's no secret that the injury to JR Smith was a factor in the decision to get Kyle Korver. The Cavs were hurting for some offense in the second unit - Shumpert had been playing extremely well but was heading back into the starting lineup with JR out. The fallout has been added stress on the rest of the lineup.
Most notably, the lineup stress has fallen on LeBron James. James averaged a surprisingly high 37.1 minutes per game before JR's injury. The following night he played 34 minutes and followed that up with 28 in a blowout win over Brooklyn. Since then, however, he's averaged 38.7 minutes a night. With a "point guard by committee" approach when Kyrie Irving is off the floor, it's been more James. While JR Smith isn't known to fit that role, he would be one more player to split the load, perhaps reducing minutes by a small amount for those around him.
The second aspect of this personnel shakeup is that his role wasn't exactly a plug-n-play replacement. Despite shooting poorly at the start of the season, JR averaged nine field goal attempts and almost seven three-pointers per game. Those shots went up for grabs the moment he went down. That's why Korver arrived; without Korver, who would those shots go to? Maybe Irving, possibly LeBron, but did the Cavalier brass think that spreading nine extra field goals between a suddenly off-the-mark RJ, Shumpert, Liggins, and Mike Dunleavy was a good idea? The answer was no, and that's how Korver got to Cleveland.
Korver needs to have someone who can feed him the ball. That leads to LBJ's minutes staying high or Kyrie playing with the second unit more. That leads to less function as the team works to get Korver shots and abandons the offensive gameplan (which sort of exists in the first place). That confusion about who should be doing what and when they should do it leads to losses. Those losses lead to LeBron publicly demanding a "playmaker."
This isn't to say that the Cavaliers would be 40-10 if JR were healthy, but it's hard to imagine them going 7-8 in January if JR Smith had both thumbs available.
So now the Cavaliers need that alleged playmaker. They held a workout for Mario Chalmers, Kirk Hinrich, Lance Stephenson, and Jordan Farmar, figuring that one of these guys could fit the bill. Fine. But these guys only fit the bill because they don't cost much money.
All of these trade rumors that are swirling will be nearly impossible for Cleveland to pull off because they don't have any money. Dan Gilbert is willing to pay high tax penalties, but it's still not likely that the Cavs' salaries will work. The salaries don't work because Gilbert was already willing to pay high tax penalties instead of being more uptight with contracts.
This one isn't JR Smith's fault because, again, I thought he deserved the contract that he got and you can't blame a guy for taking the money he's offered, but it's at least partly his fault. The JR contract, the Tristan contract, the Shump contract... those are the reasons the Cavaliers can't make trades. Nobody was offering JR $14.5 million per year, just like nobody was offering Tristan $16 million per year. The end result is that nobody is willing to make a trade for guys who are overpaid* even if they're good players. The Cavs are just completely hamstrung by their payroll.
Fortunately, it's a good roster. They're just playing poorly right now.
I am in no way advocating for the Cavs to trade either TT or JR. I don't want the Cavs to get rid of any of the guys they have, which is why this is such a frustrating time.