Why J.R. Smith is not the totally selfish player you think he is

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The Cavaliers had their back against the wall.

A day after losing its Christmas Day game to the Heat, Cleveland trailed the lowly Magic by four. Victor Oladipo had just made a free throw with 0.6 seconds remaining in the third quarter.

As the Cavaliers took the ball out of bounds, they surely realized they – by rule – had enough time left to catch and shoot. Cutting into Orlando’s lead on that final possession would be difficult, but it was at least possible.

Shawn Marion took ball out.

Mike Miller ran up court and left view at a pretty fast pace. Even if he were trying to get open, a long pass would have been risky. If the went ball out of bounds without being touched, Orlando would have gotten possession where the pass was thrown – right under Cleveland’s own basket. If the Magic had lost track of him, maybe it’s worth attempting the long pass. They didn’t, but at least he took a defender with him.

Marion first looked to Kevin Love, who barely moved from his rebounding position and puts up his hands as if to say, “Don’t pass to me.”

Meanwhile, Dion Waiters, bit further upcourt, pointed to Matthew Dellavedova and then slowly walked towards Cleveland’s bench.

Marion passed to Dellavedova, who showed no urgency and took one dribble to ensure time ran out.

Magic 75, Cavaliers 71. End of third quarter.

“I think it’s a dumb play, but that’s just me,” J.R. Smith, who was traded from the Knicks to Cleveland this week, said earlier this season when asked more generally about teams intentionally running out the clock to end quarters rather than attempting desperation heaves. “And I thank them for it, because if it would have went in, it would have hurt us.”

It’s quite common for players to pass on those low-percentage end-of-quarter heaves, and nobody batted at an eye when the Cavaliers did it.

Kevin Durant admitted there are situations he’d hold the ball rather than risk lowering his shooting percentage. Shane Battier said it’s not worth the hit on individual stats. And those are two of the NBA’s most respected players in recent years.

But Smith – who’s (mostly fairly) known for his bad habits – is unafraid to take those shots.

“I just do it because I think it’s the right play to make instead of just dribbling the clock out and being selfish,” Smith said. “…It can be an advantage for our team. I’ve never been one to worry about my shooting percentage.”

Who knows whether Smith’s intentions are truly altruistic? Maybe he just cares about his scoring average more than his field-goal percentage. Or maybe he (like so many NBA players) loves the thrill of attempting shots from halfcourt, so much so that he (unlike so many NBA players) takes them over protecting his field-goal percentage.

But those attempts are inarguably good for his team. In a sport where only points scored and allowed – not field-goal percentage – count toward the final won-loss verdict, the only downside to attempting them is on a player’s individual stats.

And Smith takes them without apology.

There’s no feasible way to count how players handle the end of every first, second and third quarter in every game. But I use attempts from at least 40 feet as a reasonable substitute.

Since Smith went to the Nuggets in 2006-07, he has take more such shots (73) than anyone in the league during that span. He just hasn’t made a single one.

Here’s the leaderboard for that time period on shots from at least 40 feet:

Player FG FGA
J.R. Smith 0 73
Andre Miller 1 69
Jamal Crawford 3 60
Steve Blake 1 57
Raymond Felton 3 56
Andre Iguodala 3 50
Corey Brewer 2 44
Aaron Brooks 1 43
Kyle Lowry 1 42
Derrick Rose 1 41
LeBron James 2 41
Monta Ellis 2 40
Rudy Gay 1 39
Devin Harris 1 38
Jarrett Jack 2 38
Caron Butler 1 37
Carmelo Anthony 1 37
D.J. Augustin 1 37
Joe Johnson 1 37
Mo Williams 1 36
Zach Randolph 4 35
Beno Udrih 0 35
Nate Robinson 2 35
Deron Williams 2 34
Tyreke Evans 4 34

You might be thinking Smith’s numbers are skewed, because he jacks up long shots during typical possessions. But I watched all 32 of Smith’s shots from at least 40 feet the last four years, which were available through NBA.com’s media site. Of the 32, 30 were the type of shots – a heave to end the first, second or third quarter – I’m discussing here. One exception was a desperation attempt to the end a fourth quarter, and the other came as the shot clock was expiring after a pass had been deflected into the backcourt.

Smith’s 40-foot attempts are not inflated by his penchant for jacking well beyond the 3-point arc whenever he pleases, though he says that trait helps on his heaves.

“You really get a sense for how far the basket is and what shot to shoot in that situation,” Smith said.

He practices the long shots frequently, and he knows exactly how he wants to attempt them depending where he is on the floor:

  • Halfcourt or near it: regular jumper
  • About three-quarter court: pushing ball from closer to his chest
  • Further back: baseball throw

One tactic many players take in those end-of-quarter situations is shooting with their best form no matter how much time is left. It seems that’s the internal compromise they make. If their best form means they don’t get off the attempt before the buzzer, they’re fine with that. But if they can use their natural motion and still get the shot off, that’s an attempt they’re willing to live with.

Smith – who is skilled at quickly releasing the ball when necessary – sees that trick and all the others, and like he said, he appreciates the opponent passing on those shots. But when a teammate declines the attempt?

“I get mad, because I’m like, ‘Y’all should have gave it to me. I would have at least tried to make it,’” Smith said.

Trying to make it is one – admirable – thing, but actually making it is another story. Despite all his attempts, Smith has never made a shot from beyond 40 feet, though he has had plenty of close calls.

Smith called his favorite desperation attempt a rushed 3-pointer to end the first quarter in Game 2 of the Knicks’ 2013 first-round playoff series against the Celtics:

That shot went in the books as a 36-footer, exposing a flaw in my methodology. That attempt probably belongs in this count, but there’s no feasible way to review all those slightly closer looks. Forty feet ensures nearly every shot is an end-of-quarter heave, and the evidence is conclusive enough that Smith is willing to take those shots.

What’s a little less clear is how that affects him.

Smith has battled injury this season and taken just two shots from at least 40 feet, but last year he led the NBA with 14 such shots. That season, he shot 39.4 percent on 3-pointers. Remove the 40-plus footers, and his 3-point percentage jumps to 40.6 percent. Those 1.2 percentage points aren’t a huge difference, but they at least slightly alter perception of Smith, especially because they drop him below the 40 percent bar from beyond the arc.

Is he worried that will affect him in contract negotiations if executives don’t realize why his shooting percentage is lower?

“I haven’t really thought about it like that,” said Smith, who has a player option for next season. “Actually, I think it’s a good thing. I think they should know my worth from the way I play and how I play. So, I don’t think shooting percentage should come into it.”

The Cavaliers, for contractual reasons or any other, obviously disagreed during that Dec. 26 game against the Magic.

Cleveland still won that game behind 15 fourth-quarter points from LeBron James, who was not on the court to end the third quarter. In many ways, that exemplifies who the Cavaliers have been this season – structurally unsound but usually talented enough to win anyway.

At this point, everyone believes they understand what J.R. Smith adds to the equation, and it’s no surprise when he says, “I feel as though there’s not a shot I can’t make.”

But maybe that’s just the team-first attitude the Cavaliers need.

Coach, front office moves update: Pistons make Williams hiring official, Borrego or Stotts to Bucks bench?

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There are far from settled across the NBA in both the coaching and front office circles, with news still leaking out daily. Here’s an update on things which have come to light in recent days.

• The Detroit Pistons made the hiring of Monty Williams official.

“A week ago, I was not sure what the future would hold,” Williams said in a statement, referencing reports he had planned to take a year away from coaching. “But, after talking with Tom [Gores, team principal owner] and Troy [Weaver, Pistons GM], I was excited hearing their vision for the Pistons going forward. They had a thoughtful plan and I am so appreciative of the emphasis they placed on the personal side of this business. They showed tremendous consideration for me and my family throughout this process.

“They also showed a commitment to success and doing things the right way,” he said. “As we discussed the team and expressed our collective goals, I realized that this would be a great opportunity for me to help a talented young team and build a strong culture here in Detroit. This is obviously a special place with a deep basketball history, and my family and I are looking forward to the opportunity to be a part of this city and organization.”

Williams has a six-year, $78.5 million contract with the team and that reportedly could grow to more than eight years, $100 million if incentives are hit. He was brought in to help build a culture of defense and discipline for a franchise with some nice young players but many questions.

• Kevin Ollie, the former NBA player and UConn coach who was in the mix for the Pistons’ job before Williams was hired, will be on the bench in Brooklyn next season.

• While Adrian Griffin has not officially signed his contract as the new Bucks head coach, he is sitting in on meetings running up to the draft and has essentially started the job, reports Eric Nehm and Shams Charania at The Athletic.

More interestingly, The Athletic reports the Bucks plan to put an experienced, veteran head coach next to the rookie Griffin, and are speaking to former Hornets head coach James Borrego and former Trail Blazers head coach Terry Stotts. Bringing in an experienced staff to put around Griffin is the smart move, with what we saw this season with Joe Mazzulla in Boston as an example of why this is the smart path.

• The Wizards have hired former Hawks head of basketball operations Travis Schlenk to be the right-hand man next to new Wizards president Michael Winger. This is a quality hire. Schlenk was rumored to have questioned Atlanta’s trade for Dejounte Murray to put next to Trae Young — a move ownership wanted — and by mid-season he was pushed out the door. Having Winger and Schlenk in the Washington front office is a lot of brain power, the question remains will they be given true freedom by owner Ted Leonsis to make moves for the long term and not prioritize just making the playoffs? The Wizards have a big offseason coming up with questions about new contracts/extensions for Kyle Kuzma and Kristaps Porzingis.

• Aaron Nelson, the training staff guru hired by the Pelicans away from the Suns in 2019 to help Zion Williamson and others, appears to be out of the mix in a restructured staff, reports Christian Clark at the Times-Picayune. Zion did not have a great relationship with Nelson, but the question is was Nelson the scapegoat for players issues beyond his control? From Clark’s article:

Williamson’s relationship with Nelson became strained during his rookie season. At different points, Williamson refused to work with him…

Brandon Ingram sat out 29 consecutive games with an injury the team described as a left toe contusion. Ingram kicked the back of a Memphis Grizzlies player’s foot in November. Two days after the injury, Pelicans coach Willie Green said Ingram was “day to day.” Days turned into weeks. Weeks turned into months. Ingram did not play again until Jan. 25 — exactly two months after hurting his toe…

Ingram has sometimes seemed unwilling to play through minor discomfort, to the point where some of his teammates have become frustrated with him over the past two years. The Pelicans thought they had solved their player care and performance problem by hiring Nelson. Four years later, Nelson’s time in charge of the department is over.

When the Pelicans have all their stars on the court, this is at the very least, a playoff team in the West and potentially a dangerous one. I’m not going to speculate on the internal dynamics of the Pelicans front office and training team, but after years of injury issues it’s fair to ask if this is a matter of the training staff, or is this on the players themselves?

Knicks’ Julius Randle undergoes ankle surgery, should return for training camp

2023 NBA Playoffs - 	New York Knicks v Miami Heat
Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images
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The Knicks’ Julius Randle sprained his ankle with two weeks to go in the regular season. He returned from that in time to face the Cleveland Cavaliers and their massive front line in the playoffs, but he struggled in that series — 14.4 points a game on 33.8% shooting — and injured his ankle again in Game 5. He did make it back for the Heat series after missing Game 1 but was never fully himself.

Now, as he hinted at during the playoffs, Randle has undergone offseason arthroscopic surgery on his left ankle, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN. Randle is expected to be ready for the start of training camp in the fall.

Randle had an All-NBA season, averaging 25.1 points and 10 rebounds a game, and was part of the reason, along with Jalen Brunson, the Knicks were the No. 5 seed in the East last season.

Randle’s name has come up in trade rumors, mostly with him going out if the Knicks get in the mix for a superstar who becomes available this offseason. If someone such as Karl-Anthony Towns or Bradley Beal hits the market and New York wants to be in play, sending out Randle — set to make $25.6 million this season, with two more seasons on the books after that — is the way to match salaries.

Randle should be healthy and ready for training camp for whatever team he is on come September.

Watch Victor Wembanyama highlights from French league playoffs

TOPSHOT-BASKET-FRA-ELITE-ASVEL-METROPOLITANS 92
OLIVIER CHASSIGNOLE/AFP via Getty Images
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Give Victor Wembanyama and his handlers credit — they have got him out there playing. The management teams for a lot of future No. 1 picks would have their guy in bubble wrap by now, not doing anything but solo workouts in a gym, not wanting to risk any injury or risking his draft status.

Wembanyama — the 7’4″ prodigy on both ends of the floor — is on the court in the semi-finals of the French LNB league (the highest level of play in France). His team, Boulogne-Levallois Metropolitans 92, is one win away from the LNB Finals. While they lost on Friday to Lyon-Villeurbanne (the best-of-five series is now 2-1 Boulogne-Levallois), Wembanyama put up some highlights worth watching.

The San Antonio Spurs will select Wembanyama with the No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft (June 22). San Antonio — and possibly Wembanyama — will make their Summer League debut at the California Classic Summer League in Sacramento in early July, before heading on to Las Vegas for the larger, official Summer League. While Wembanyama is playing for his French team in the playoffs, how much the Spurs will play him in the summer leagues — if at all — remains to be seen (top players have been on the court less and less at Summer League in recent years).

Spoestra’s biggest Heat adjustment for Game 2? Play with more ‘toughness and resolve’

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DENVER — The days between NBA Finals are filled with talk of adjustments. After an ugly Game 1, much of that falls on the Heat — what can Erik Spoelstra draw up to get Jimmy Butler better lanes to attack? How must the Heat adjust their defense on Nikola Jokick?

Spoelstra sees it a little differently.

“Scheme is not going to save us,” he said.

His point is straightforward, the team’s best adjustment is simply to play better. More effort, more resolve. The trio of Max Strus, Caleb Martin and Duncan Robinson must do better than 2-of-23 from 3. The Heat can’t settle for jumpers like they did in Game 1, they have to attack the rim and draw some fouls, getting to the line (the Heat had just two free throws in Game 1). Their halfcourt defensive decisions have to be sharper. Those are not scheme-related things.

The Heat saw some of that in the second half, but Spoelstra made it clear the better last 24 minutes (particularly the last 12) was more about effort than the adjustments they made (such as playing more Haywood Highsmith and putting him on Jokić for a while).

“I never point to the scheme. Scheme is not going to save us,” Spoelstra said. “It’s going to be the toughness and resolve, collective resolve. That’s us at our finest, when we rally around each other and commit to doing incredibly tough things. That’s what our group loves to do more than anything, to compete, to get out there and do things that people think can’t be done.

“The efforts made that work in the second half, but we’re proving that we can do that with our man defense, too.”

Among the things many people don’t think can be done is the Heat coming back in this series. But Spoelstra is right, proving people wrong is what the Heat have done all playoffs.