Cavs rewarded for leap of faith with J.R. Smith

ATLANTA -- It came down to two conversations.

One was with J.R. Smith. One was with LeBron James. Both were held by Cleveland Cavaliers general manager David Griffin in January when he was mulling what many considered a high-risk move.

A high-stakes reward came Wednesday night when Smith had one of the finest games of his career, hitting eight 3-pointers and scoring 28 points off the bench as the Cavs beat the Atlanta Hawks 97-89 to take Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals.

It could be said that this game alone could make the Smith transaction worthwhile, though the Cavs claimed it as a victory awhile ago. The J.R. Smith Experience certainly has its moments. It took Griffin awhile to agree to buy a ticket for it.

For some time, the Cavs had been talking to the New York Knicks about trading for Iman Shumpert. Needing defensive help on the wing, this was a player the Cavs had been targeting since last summer. After holding off on reality for some time, the Knicks finally reached a point that they had to shift gears on the season. They knew season-ending surgery was coming for Carmelo Anthony, it'd been a miserable first two months of play and Shumpert, a free agent-to-be who was looking for a sizable contract, was out with a dislocated shoulder anyway.

But the price for getting Shumpert was also taking Smith to get his contract off the books for next season and, frankly, also in part to get him away from the team. Pouting about his situation and the state of the failing Knicks, Smith wasn't just not producing, he was also a pain. In reality, the Knicks had been looking for a way to get rid of him for months.

This gave the Cavs major pause, as it did many teams that passed on a litany of Smith trade pitches by the Knicks. The thought of getting two starter-quality wings nearly for free -- a few end-of-the-bench players and a second-round pick four years in the future -- was tantalizing. But with any supposed great deal there were queasy conditions. They didn't need to hire an investigative firm to compile a dossier on Smith -- his history of bad decisions, reckless behavior and wildly inconsistent play was well known to all.

So Griffin went to James.

"Get him here and I'll take care of it," James said Wednesday night, recalling the pivotal discussion.

To James, the character issues weren't just secondary, they didn't matter. He saw a chance to grab the type of shooter he loves to play with, one with a quick release and endless confidence. James has been striving to get guys like this as teammates for a decade or so now. The Cavs needed talent at that position and Smith was a talent and a contemporary whom James felt he could relate.

"I knew the man he was and I didn't really care about what everybody else thought of him," James said. "Our front office, they have the last say. ... I was definitely all for it."

"It's a great situation for me. It's more for my mom. I mean, she's probably my biggest fan. When all those negative things are being said and stuff like that, me personally I don't care. But to see her hurting, to see her go through those situations, to feel the way she feels, it's a terrible feeling for me." J.R. Smith

Griffin asked the Knicks to speak with Smith. This is somewhat unusual in the NBA. Often players find out they've been traded on social media. The Knicks, feeling like they may have a team on the hook, granted permission for the type of phone call that otherwise would've been considered tampering.

The conversation, sources said, was dead serious. Smith was not going to have rope. It was a new chance, but it was only one chance. Regardless of what James had said, this was going to be on Griffin and the Cavs' front office. If it went south, then they'd be blamed. So much of decision-making in the NBA involves assessing possible career damage of dangerous moves that probably none of Griffin's peers would've second-guessed him if he passed.

There were few other options, though. The Cavs were working diligently on getting a deal done for big man Timofey Mozgov and that wasn't going to leave them many assets to make a different deal than what the Knicks were willing to do. Coach David Blatt badly wanted Mozgov and, like James, was also on board with getting Smith.

Ultimately, the Cavs figured if Smith messed up, whether it was another failed drug test or more heavy partying or fighting, they could just release him. With a year and $6.3 million left on his deal (a player option) their insurance policy was to use the stretch provision on him and spread money owed over the next few years. And they'd have Shumpert and enough left to get Mozgov, too.

Smith made promises to Griffin, though he has made such proclamations before, and when the call was over Griffin weighed the situation. He trusted his best player and he trusted his coach, and eventually after discussing it with ownership, he called the Knicks and made the deal.

"It's a great situation for me," Smith said. "It's more for my mom. I mean, she's probably my biggest fan. When all those negative things are being said and stuff like that, me personally I don't care. But to see her hurting, to see her go through those situations, to feel the way she feels, it's a terrible feeling for me."

It's not clear how this story will end. Smith's history is too checkered and his mood too volatile for anything absolute. But he has earned some capital with doubters for now, even in the Cavs organization. When he was given yet another suspension in these playoffs, the organization vigorously defended him and lobbied the league to go light on the penalty. It didn't work, but it did show they were fully behind him, Smith' toeing the line and production over the previous months having won over the organization.

It hasn't been just James on Smith's side for a long time now. That's why when he was going through his hot streak in the second half Wednesday, thrashing the Hawks with one swish after another to silence the crowd and build a huge lead, the entire Cavs bench was whooping and hopping around in glee.

Smith may not make eight more 3-pointers in the rest of the series. Or he might make six more in Game 2. No one knows. He could commit another flagrant foul and get another suspension, it wouldn't really be that surprising either.

But the support James showed and Griffin's willingness to wade into the uncertainly have a winning look at the moment. And seeing as this is the Eastern Conference finals, this moment is pretty important.

"He's been great for us, and he's been a great teammate, and he's been a great guy to coach," Blatt said. "And no question, he's one of the reasons, one of the main reasons, we're here."