JR Smith was not ready to wrap up his 15-year NBA career when he left the Cleveland Cavaliers in late 2018, and the ensuing 20 months were not much fun for the veteran shooter.
“I went through a very depressed state for a long time," Smith said Monday. "I’m a big video gamer, (but) I didn’t even play (NBA) 2K anymore. I don’t want to hoop, I don’t want to work out, I don’t want to play 2K, I don’t want do anything with basketball.”
Thanks to a call from the Los Angeles Lakers, Smith is getting another shot on basketball's biggest stage. He joined the Western Conference leaders for workouts last week before they head to Florida for the conclusion of the NBA season.
The 34-year-old Smith was added to the roster because Lakers starter Avery Bradley declined to return for the rest of the season, citing family concerns. The Lakers needed a depth replacement who could immediately fit in alongside LeBron James while playing solid wing defense, providing a 3-point threat and meshing quickly as a teammate.
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Nobody in recent NBA history fits that job description more perfectly than Smith, who reached four NBA Finals and won the 2016 title while playing alongside James in Cleveland. Known for his ebullient behavior on and off the court, Smith was overjoyed to get back in the show.
“I was gone for a while," Smith said. "Being somebody who has been around the league predominantly for most of their adult life, when that’s taken away from you, it kind of gives you that culture shock. You obviously don’t understand what you've lost until it’s gone. I just want to appreciate the moment for what it is, and whether it be next year or never again, I just want to enjoy every possible moment that I get.”
Smith tried out for the Lakers in February when they had another roster spot available, but the team chose veteran Dion Waiters for that slot. Waiters never got to play for Los Angeles before the season was suspended, and now both veterans are headed to Orlando with the Lakers.
Coach Frank Vogel was impressed by the way Smith kept himself in shape despite being without a team for an extended period.
“I think this is really a great story,” Vogel said. “When you look at a guy who could potentially be out of the league and was a starter on a Finals team a couple years back, a champion, for him to have the perseverance to stay ready and give himself this opportunity, I think is to be commended.”
It’s too soon to tell whether Smith will get significant playing time behind Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Alex Caruso, who are likely to fill the majority of Bradley’s minutes.
But Smith’s particular set of skills is exactly what the Lakers sought — particularly his career 37.3% shooting on 3-pointers. With James setting up Anthony Davis as their primary scoring option, the Lakers have plenty of opportunities for well-spaced shooters to get open looks.
“Hey, his nickname is ‘Swish’ for a reason, right?” Vogel said of Smith. "He’s a shot-maker, a big-time shot-maker. I think he’s really going to help us.”
Smith is also uncommonly familiar with James, and he knows what to do when LeBron's competitiveness ramps up in the postseason. Smith and James have played together for years in the NBA's most difficult situations — and this time, they won't have to face the Golden State Warriors.
“There’s people that are not going to know how to deal with it,” Smith said of James' competitiveness. “It comes off in the wrong way sometimes, and you need that bridge as a player to be able to go to the next player and be like, ‘Listen man, it’s nothing personal. (It's not about) who was right, who was wrong.’ It’s just a good balance, I think, between myself and him, because he knows just as well he can challenge anybody else, I’ll challenge him, and vice versa.”