As soon as Dwyane Wade agreed to a buyout with the Bulls, nearly everyone in the NBA community assumed he would take his talents to Cleveland and team up with close friend LeBron James. While this past NBA offseason went insane on a number of levels, it turned out this was an easy call.
Wade signed with the Cavs in late September, only a week before the Cavs kicked off their preseason schedule on Oct. 4, but it's already clear he will play a key role on his new team. Cavs coach Tyronn Lue announced this week Wade will be plugged into the starting lineup for the regular season, pushing J.R. Smith to the bench. The starting five will include Wade, Derrick Rose, Jae Crowder, LeBron James and Kevin Love with key role players like Smith, Tristan Thompson, Iman Shumpert and Kyle Korver coming off the bench.
Smith and Thompson have been company men about the adjustment, but it's clear the transition won't come without some disappointment. Smith was "absolutely" frustrated by the benching, and it appears Thompson wasn't exactly happy about it either.
"We talked about it," Smith told Joe Vardon of Cleveland.com. "It wasn't the most positive conversation, but we talked about it and we'll get through it together."
This won't create any extra controversy, at least not in Smith's mind, as he was "pretty much bracing" for the change before Lue made the final decision. Smith even mentioned how he can be more of a creator with the second unit as opposed to a spot-up shooter with James taking on most of the playmaking duties with the starting unit. Smith averaged 18.1 points per game in 2012-13 with the Knicks when he won the NBA's Sixth Man of the Year award, though he was third on the team at 33.5 minutes behind Carmelo Anthony and Raymond Felton in 80 games off the bench for New York.
However, there is still that desire for Smith to earn his starting job. It's a fair point considering he has been a valuable contributor during his time in Cleveland and started 157 of 164 regular-season games and 43 of 57 playoff games, including all 39 games the past two postseasons. Smith was an integral part of the Cavs' last three trips to the NBA Finals, particularly the 2016 championship run when he averaged 11.5 points per game on 43.0 percent shooting from 3-point range and performed well defensively given the challenge of chasing around the Warriors' shooters along the perimeter.
Smith saw a drop in his production last season, scoring 8.6 points per game (his lowest output since 2005-06) on 34.6 percent shooting from the field in only 41 games after missing a good portion of the season following thumb surgery. Yes, Smith struggled last season, but he's still a shooter who must be respected, as opposed to a backcourt of Rose and Wade. Crowder and Love will help create space, but defenders of Rose and Wade will likely crash the paint on penetration and shrink the floor.
Last Year's Cavs Starting 5 Spacing Rating (per @Nick_Sciria): 76.6%
This Year's Cavs Starting 5 Spacing Rating: 33.3%
— Mike Zavagno (@MZavagno11) October 9, 2017
It would make more sense to place Smith next to Rose or Wade in order to offset the areas where they are lacking and boost the lineup's overall offensive potential. This would also keep Smith in the same lineup as James, who averaged 8.3 passes and 1.7 assists per game to Smith during his last fully healthy season in 2015-16. Granted that season began with Irving on the bench after a knee injury in the 2015 NBA Finals, but it's possible the two could rekindle that relationship with Irving gone and Isaiah Thomas likely out until January.
It's not as simple as numbers, though, despite what they may tell you. NBA players have pride and egos, and a 12-time All-Star and three-time champion like Dwyane Wade may have signed his contract knowing he would fill that starting shooting guard slot. If someone asked Wade why he should start, and he responded, "I'm Dwyane Freaking Wade," that would be a reasonable answer.
But Smith certainly has his own case to stay on the floor at the start of every game given his past performances and fit within the Cavs' system.
"It's tough, you've been in position where you went to three straight Finals and you've been the starting 2-guard," Lue said (via NBA.com). "But like I said, it's about sacrifice if you want to win. J.R. was great about it. Just knows he has to have a different role right now so we'll see how it works."