Hello again, casual basketball fan! The NBA Finals begin tonight. The heavily favored Golden State Warriors will face the Cleveland Cavaliers; league MVP Steph Curry and rising star Klay Thompson will take on the immortal LeBron James and whiz-kid Kyrie Irving. The Warriors will seek their first title in 40 years; the Cavaliers will try to win Cleveland’s first major-sport championship since 1964. But enough about that shit. Let’s talk about J.R. Smith.
“J.R. Smith is in the NBA Finals” is an electrifying sentence. The championship will be contested in no small part by one of basketball’s most notoriously unpredictable goofballs: the imp who last season got benched and fined $50,000 because he wouldn’t stop untying opponents’ shoelaces, and whose response to those disciplinary measures was a switch to fucking with Vince Carter’s headband instead; the social-media trainwreck who gave the immortal come-on line “You trying to get the pipe?” to the world; the guy for whom one of the great challenges of basketball is trying to “figure out a way” to pass the ball to his own teammates; the guy who won Sixth Man of the Year for a Knicks team Carmelo Anthony didn’t even want him on. The guy for whom no part of the previous sentence seemed out of character at all.
Maybe he will pants Andrew Bogut mid-play. Maybe he will pants himself mid-play! But also: Maybe he will singlehandedly incinerate the Warriors three times in the next two weeks and be the deciding factor in Cleveland’s first pro sports championship since 1964. This is a real and not entirely unlikely possibility! The wonder of J.R. Smith is that both Finals teams and fanbases have reason to be more than a little bit afraid of him, of the size of the role he’ll play over the next couple of weeks and what he might do in it.
Pictured: J.R. Smith wins my heart, forever.
J.R. Smith stands apart from other modern-day NBA goofballs for the hilarity of his goofiness and, more importantly, for the quality of his game. A twee, self-consciously eccentric nitwit like Nick Young can do dumb, viral-internet-optimized shit like eating cinnamon and dating Iggy Azalea to his heart’s content from a kitchen somewhere, but on an actual basketball court, he’s just a scrub who misses 20-footers a lot, and if he happened to be on a team that made the Finals, it’d be as an end-of-the-bench spectator. Twitter users would work themselves into a phony froth of oversold excitement about it, but it’d be an Instagram-and-garbage-time phenomenon only, irrelevant and insufferable and endlessly boring.
Not so in J.R. Smith’s case. If you watched the Eastern Conference Finals, you already caught a glimpse of how deadly he can be, when he vaporized the top-seeded Atlanta Hawks in Game 1:
The eight threes get the attention, of course, but the whole game is there. Look at him making a yo-yo out of poor Kent Bazemore with that step-back bucket at around 2:00 in the video; or freezing Kyle Korver, a very good and smart defender, with the tiniest hesitation at 2:35, then darting past him to draw help and find Tristan Thompson with a soft lob pass. At his basketball best, he’s terrific bordering on terrifying, a physical paragon with the handle, range, vision, and imagination to get anywhere and do anything at the offensive end of the floor. He can even defend well, for as long as his attention lasts; skip to 3:05, when All-Star power forward Paul Millsap, who has two inches and 30 pounds on J.R., tries to back him down in the post, and gets nowhere at all.
The line that has been used to scold J.R. for as long as he’s been around goes, He could be one of the world’s best players if he’d just get his head screwed on straight. And while that’s probably true, the sport is better served by his misalignment and by the chaos it spools out into. The optimized, analyzed-within-an-inch-of-its-life modern NBA game is always at risk of sliding into the robotic hive-mind drudgery of college basketball; Daryl Morey’s Rockets, for example, at their worst lapse into an algorithmic inhumanity that can be uncanny valley-repulsive to watch, like if a Go-playing computer wrapped itself in living tissue. J.R. Smith, by refreshing contrast, is unpredictable in the way only humans can be; he confounds every scheme and subverts every idea of basketball, except the one about how the game is played by fundamentally silly human beings, some of whom are great at this goddamn sport. That one he brings to joyous, bonkers life.
He’s like if a mad scientist put James Harden’s handle and Kevin Durant’s range in young Vince Carter’s body—and then gave him Chuck Jones’s brain. Both Harden and J.R. can turn a defender into Michelangelo’s David and hit a step-back jumper in his mug; both Durant and J.R. can toss in a 40-footer like it was a free-throw; like J.R., young Vince could drive baseline and throw down a windmill in live game action. But, while there’s certainly nothing stopping any of those other guys from drawing a suspension for making a salad on Draymond Green’s head, J.R. is the only one who might. The possibilities are endless.
If J.R. is Bugs, here, Elmer Fudd could be literally anyone, on either team, including J.R. himself.
One of the best illustrations of J.R.’s boundless capacity to surprise came last April when Smith, then on the Knicks, went utterly nuts and hit 10 threes against LeBron and the Miami Heat—on 22 goddamn attempts, the most threes a single player has ever attempted in a single game. It was one of the most bananas performances anyone will ever see in a professional sporting event. He shot a blazing 45 percent from outside the arc, and 17 percent from inside of it. He did not take a single free throw. The Knicks lost by 11. I watched the game live and have re-watched it since, and can say that J.R. Smith kept the Knicks alive and killed them, at the same time, which should not be possible. It was amazing and hilarious, and so is J.R. Smith.
I think there’s an illuminating contrast to be found by comparing that gonzo spectacle to the 37-point quarter J.R.’s upcoming Finals opponent Klay Thompson dropped on the hapless Sacramento Kings back in January:
Of course Thompson’s is the more impressive of the two feats, and of course he’s generally the better (or at least the more consistently good) of the two players. The thing to look at is how the two opposing teams reacted to what was happening, and what it tells you about who Klay Thompson and J.R. Smith are and have been in the NBA.
In Thompson’s explosion, the Kings defended him in a frenzy from the very beginning; with the exception of the transition three at 0:13, he had a defender either in his shirt or sprinting at him in a white-hot panic on every touch. That’s because, for as ridiculous as some of those shots were, and for as deadly a shooter as he is, Klay Thompson is a native of the discernible laws of the universe. He’s automatic when he gets a clean catch and a good look, and, when harassed and crowded and disrupted, not. That makes sense. Klay Thompson makes sense.
J.R., by contrast, had hit five threes in a reasonably close game against an excellent defensive team before anybody made all that concerted an effort to stick with him. That’s because clean catches and open looks have almost no bearing on whether J.R. will score efficiently or not, and whether J.R. scores efficiently or not often seems to have no bearing on whether his team wins or loses. He exists largely outside of logic, and so exists largely outside of basketball tactics, too; he will shoot the lights out or he will shoot as though the lights are out, and no one will know why, least of all J.R. himself.
Which makes his participation in the most fraught and important basketball games of the season deliciously exciting. It’s been a long time since the Finals included a goofball who came close to matching Smith for both goofiness and vital importance to his team’s fate. There just aren’t many anarchic madmen in today’s NBA, and championship-caliber teams mostly won’t make room for them: the schemes are too rigid, the talent margins too narrow, the coaches and GMs too insecure.
Fig. 1.0: Very good and very goofy is a pretty rare combination in the Finals.
We made do with doofuses like Mario Chalmers and Michael Beasley the past few years, but they’re only funny because of circumstance—they happened to be the abjectly shitty players upon whom LeBron’s Big Three were forced to rely. The only genuinely surprising, anarchic contribution either can make to a basketball game is a memorable fuck-up; the range of possibility never includes either gonzo genius or giving Joey Crawford an atomic wedgie for no reason. J.R. Smith is a different creature entirely, goofier than either of those two, and genuinely capable of being, if his weird stars align correctly for one series, the third-best player on a championship team.
You have to go all the way back to the ’90s, to Michael Jordan’s second run with the Bulls, to find a Finals participant who could match or surpass J.R.’s combination of importance and unbridled cartoon goofiness: Dennis Rodman.
Pictured: A kind of eccentricity you could get away with before the term “stretch four” was invented
Like Smith, Rodman had a remarkable set of basketball skills, the full depth and breadth of which drifted in and out of visibility seemingly at random—like the time Rodman, a career 23-percent three-point shooter who made 82 threes in 14 years, suddenly drained three in a row (the third didn’t count—he stepped out of bounds) at the end of a blowout win over the Milwaukee Bucks. Like Smith, he was a mercurial wizard at one end of the court—defense, in his case—and only occasionally exerted himself at the other. Like Smith, he was bonkers enough to self-destruct at any time, like when he kicked a cameraman for no reason, or whacked Alonzo Mourning for no reason, or pissed away what few scraps of public goodwill he earned in the course of a long and brilliant NBA career by deciding of his own free will to become North Korea’s volunteer press secretary. Like Smith, he found himself in the hilarious position of vital importance to an all-time great’s heroic return from exile.
And, God, how fun Dennis Rodman made those three Finals series. It was fun to watch him drive tightwad Karl Malone (or Antoine Carr, or Frank Brickowski, or Detlef Schrempf) up the fucking wall; it was fun to watch Shawn Kemp drape his nuts on Rodman’s dome; it was fun to hear the undisguised enjoyment of a fellow troll in Marv Albert’s voice, and it was even more fun to hear the barely suppressed rage at an unpunished nonconformist in Bob Costas’s. It was fun to watch the biggest and most important basketball games in the world and have no idea at all what this cartoon character would do, or why, or which team would be glad he did it. It was fun because he was a goofball, and because he was a goofball who was great at basketball.
This is what J.R. Smith can give us! He can make the NBA Finals weird and surprising and fun. He can scour the polish off Mike Breen’s act and reveal the exasperated, disapproving scold at the heart of it. He can be the third-best player on both teams, at the same time. He can upend every hope and hijack every storyline. He can hit 12 threes and somehow have it benefit the Warriors, or uncork the airball that somehow completes LeBron’s mission to win a championship for Cleveland. He can untie all the shoes, or tie them all together and make fart noises when anybody bends down to fix it. He’s the only one who can. Best of all, he might.
Top photo and Rodman photo via AP; videos via various YouTubes; chart by Jim Cooke and Sam Woolley
Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.