Shootaround (Oct. 15): Cavs whole again with J.R. Smith back in fold
J.R. returns to Cavs | Steve Kerr has options in Golden State | Gregg Popovich feels the Miami Heat’s pain
No. 1: Smith back in fold with Cavaliers — The holdout of Smith was the only real “drama” of the NBA preseason and it ended rather predictably and quietly Friday when the veteran guard signed a four-year, $57 million deal. The Cavs are now whole and ready to begin defense of their NBA title. They were in a weird situation with Smith; while he had no real leverage (all but a few non-contenders were too capped to sign him), the Cavs had no real replacement for him. Anyway, he will likely end his career in Cleveland and what a career it has been. The saga of JR was captured recently by Charles Bethea of the New Yorker:
During J.R.’s first two years in the league, his father lived with him in New Orleans, in a house that J.R. bought, enforcing most of the rules his other children obeyed in Millstone. “I bought a house and cars, but I was sleeping in the guest room,” J.R. told me. “My dad got the master!” He had a curfew: midnight if there was no game the next day, otherwise earlier. When the veteran players invited him somewhere, he’d say, “I gotta call my dad.” His father had final say on cars, too. “I wanted to get this BMW that had just come out,” a model that his friend Dwight Howard, who went first in the draft, had just purchased. “My pops said, ‘No. He was the No. 1 pick. You were eighteen. You’re gonna work for that.’ ”
Smith put up decent numbers in his first few seasons, but he was criticized for poor shot selection and questionable decision-making. One of his first coaches, George Karl, said, of Smith’s play, “I just love the dignity of the game being insulted right in front of me.” After several years in Denver, and one in China, Smith was acquired by the Knicks, in 2012. In his first full season with the team, he won the Sixth Man of the Year Award, given to the league’s best bench player. But there were signs of an impending collapse. He’d helped get his younger brother Chris on the team, and then posted the word “betrayal” on Instagram after the Knicks cut him. (Smith says the post was unrelated.) He’d thrown an elbow at the Celtics’ Jason Terry during the Knicks’ playoff run, in 2013, which earned him a game suspension that nearly cost the team the series.
“Nothing I did in New York was working by the end, before going to Cleveland,” he told me. He couldn’t get the balance right between work and life. “At one point I thought I was at the gym too much.” He’d spend hours there working on his fundamentals, but it didn’t help. “So I started going out a lot, thinking I was taking the game too seriously. Then I partied too much. That wasn’t working. So I started messing with this girl, changing things up relationship-wise. That wasn’t working. Then I was having trouble with my daughter’s mom. And I’m like, Man, what’s going on? I couldn’t get out of my own way. I tried to have fun on the court, pulling somebody’s shoestring: fifty-thousand-dollar fine. I’d been doing that for years. Then the weed: suspended five games. It was like, This thing will not stop.”
On the subject of shoelaces, Smith became almost agitated, leaning forward in his swivel chair, his sleepy eyes widening. “Dwight was untying laces for four or five years,” he said, “but nobody said anything! They’re just like, ‘Look how much Dwight enjoys the game!’ Then I do it, and the same people are like, ‘Look at J.R.: he doesn’t take the game seriously.’ Why is it that Dwight loves the game and I don’t? Why can’t I have that much fun playing? How can you say one person can do something and another can’t? Because he gets paid more? Smiles bigger?”
A young boy tiptoed into the room, with his mother, to ask for an autograph, and one for his grandma, too, who, he said, was a big fan. Smith happily obliged, performing the name-signing ritual with what appeared to be genuine pleasure. After they left, Smith continued. “When I was the best player growing up, my dad never treated me like I was special. Nobody treated me that way, until I got to the N.B.A. To this day, probably one reason they call me a knucklehead is that I can’t understand: Why can’t you treat everybody the same?”
Lately, Smith has spent a lot of time reading. “There’s a book called ‘Black Rednecks and White Liberals.’ It’s amazing,” he said. The book is by the economist Thomas Sowell, who grew up in Harlem in the nineteen-forties and is now a fellow at the Hoover Institution, at Stanford. “I was talking to ’Bron, James Jones, and a couple guys in the locker room—a lot of us like to read—tossing around ideas about books and, from a political standpoint, how people came to be ‘ghetto’ or ‘urban.’ That book has twisted my mind. ‘Ghetto’ was first used to describe white folks!”
Smith would like to speak out, as his friends LeBron and Carmelo have recently, about police violence against African-Americans. But he worries about how he’d be interpreted. “I can’t say what I want and how I want,” he told me. “Because it’s me. When I try to explain myself or express myself, it seems to come off the wrong way. Like, when I was in New York, four or five years ago, the anniversary of September 11th comes up and I make an Instagram post for all the people who died, to celebrate their lives.” The post read, “Celebrate the deaths of the people in 9/11!” “I was trying to say, We shouldn’t mourn as much. We should celebrate their legacies,” Smith explained. “Don’t get me wrong: it’s terrible what happened. The families going through it still—it’s horrible. But we should celebrate. That’s what I said. And the way it was interpreted by the New York Post was ‘Yay! They knocked down the towers!’ ”
For a few years, Smith’s business partners have been trying to fund a reality-television show about him, which—according to one rationale—would help correct misperceptions. “That show was something I was going to do when I was in New York,” he told me. During the N.B.A. Finals, a fund-raising campaign for the show appeared on Kickstarter. Smith says he wasn’t behind it, and doesn’t particularly care whether the show ever comes to fruition. “But now it doesn’t matter what other people say or think or do, as long as my daughters know what’s going on, how I feel about them,” Smith said. “I used to say it all the time: ‘I don’t care what people think.’ Well, I did. But, at this point, I’ve got my family, who’ve been my friends my whole life. They know where my heart is.”
No. 2: Steve Kerr has options in Golden State — You can probably imagine that lots of coaches would like Steve Kerr’s problems. Meaning, they’re good problems to have. Kerr of course has a stacked roster with the Warriors and must weigh a variety of factors in the preseason, mainly dealing with rotation, playing time, styles and rest. The reality for the Warriors is that the regular season is merely in the way. They must safely navigate the 82-game minefield and then hope to bulldoze their way through the playoffs, given how they’re built to win a championship. J.A. Adande of ESPN caught up with the Warriors coach and here’s his report:
The Golden State Warriors started last season with a record 24 consecutive victories on their way to a historic 73-win campaign. But expect a little more trial and error and a little less intensity this time around, Warriors coach Steve Kerr said.
“I don’t think we’ll have that this year,” Kerr said. “We’ve kind of been through that. We’d rather win a championship than set a record, that’s for sure.
“Last year we felt like we could do both — and we were pretty close — but we couldn’t pull it off. This year’s more about just growing and getting better and experimenting the first couple months of the season.”
This approach is also framed by Kerr’s experience as a player on the Chicago Bulls teams that won three consecutive championships from 1996 to 1998.
When most fans think of the end of that run, they immediately summon the lasting image of Michael Jordan hitting the winning shot over Bryon Russell in the 1998 NBA Finals. Kerr remembers the difficult buildup, with Scottie Pippen fighting through a back injury, the Bulls falling behind by double-digits and facing the prospect of a Game 7 on the road to finish their long journey.
“We were running on fumes,” Kerr said. “I think the toll was over several years. That’s one of the reasons I think this year we’re going to pace ourselves somewhat … but we’re also better off having the new blood and the new life, because I think it will give us that boost.
“It doesn’t guarantee that were going to be better, but it changes the dynamics a little bit. I think it’ll make things a little fresher, and make it maybe a little easier for us to get through the regular season and get through the grind.”
The Bulls teams from 1996 to 1998 had 10 players along for all three seasons; the Warriors have only six players who were on the roster for the past two trips to the Finals, five who logged significant minutes, creating a balancing act for Kerr.
While the new players like Kevin Durant bring fresh perspective, it will also require Kerr to make greater use of the new and old players to develop chemistry.
Last year, the key players might have played a couple more games than normal because the team wanted to set the new regular-season record of 73 victories, although Kerr said it wasn’t physical fatigue that cost the Warriors.
“The toll was more emotional than anything,” Kerr said Friday, ahead of the Warriors’ preseason game against the Denver Nuggets. “Over time, that stuff adds up. That’s why LeBron [James] going to the Finals six straight years is, to me, one of the great accomplishments of all time. Like, how many guys have done that? Maybe Bill Russell was the last guy. I know Michael didn’t do it because he took a couple of years off. Larry Bird, Magic [Johnson] never did it. … Six is incredible.”
No. 3: Gregg Popovich feels the Miami Heat’s pain — The Spurs and Heat have a recent history of making each other miserable: They split titles in back-to-back championship series appearances a few years ago. Popvich had a healthy respect for the Big Three version of the Heat and didn’t join the chorus that lambasted LeBron James and Co. for joining up to dominate the Eastern Conference. Well, both teams lost their respective franchise bedrocks over the summer: Tim Duncan in retirement and Dwyane Wade through free agency. And the Heat suffered a double blow when Chris Bosh developed a recurrence of blood clots which have ended his Heat career and put his NBA career in doubt. Popovich spoke recently with Ira Winderman of the Sun Sentinel for this report:
The Spurs are playing for the first time in 20 years without forward Tim Duncan, who retired after last season. The Heat are without Dwyane Wade for the first time in 14 years, with the guard leaving for the Chicago Bulls in July in NBA free agency.
But it was another Heat absence that left Popovich particularly reflective: Chris Bosh’s inability to make it back to the court from blood clots after a failed preseason physical.
“Whenever you see people that have such talent and have such class and can’t do the thing they love, you always feel empathetic and sorrowful that they can’t participate the same way that they’ve dreamed of all their lives,” Popovich said, with the All-Star forward missing the second half of each of the past two seasons due to clotting. “Things like that are tragic.”
“I mean, Dwyane was huge,” he said. “He was to them as Timmy is to us. Sure, it was a few different number of years, but same effect, same kind of leader. So I definitely can identify with what he’s feeling. But it’s a good opportunity to see other people step up.
“In my case, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker aren’t exactly neophytes in the program. They’ve been here about 15 years. So it’s more their show now, as far as leadership and the talks in the locker room, saying things to the young kids and saying, ‘Hey, Pop’s crazy, and you don’t have to worry about him.’ ”
SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: With Ben Simmons on the mend for months if not the entire season after foot surgery, the Sixers are scrambling to find a solution at point guard, and it isn’t easy … Will the real DeMarre Carroll step forward? That’s what he and the Raptors are asking, with Carroll finally injury free for the first time in his short Toronto career … Paul George is telling Orlando Magic players that their new coach, and his former coach, is a quality guy, and Frank Vogel no doubt approves of this message … It looks more and more like Anthony Davis won’t be ready for the Pelicans’ season opener in a few weeks … Ian Mahinmi makes more money than Wizards teammate John Wall but isn’t making apologies for that.