By Cory Sanning

Throughout his NBA career, J.R. Smith has been a free spirit with an even freer shot; untying shoes, getting into Twitter spats, and downing Hennessy in New York clubs. 

That free spirit best manifested itself as confidence on the basketball court, where his greatest strength was always his ability to put the ball in the basket. Whether it be step-back jumpers with a hand in his face, or 30-foot bombs that seemingly have no chance, Smith has this uncanny knack for making jaws drop or head shake. 

Smith often walked the line between both with no cares given, which only served to make him all the more dangerous–even if at his own team’s peril at times.

Despite boasting a moderately reliable jump shot for most of his career, J.R. Smith’s stroke has gone missing for a number of weeks now, and the the Cleveland Cavaliers are struggling mightily as the trade deadline and All-Star break rapidly approach. 

Standing at 30-20 through 50 games, the Cavaliers have failed to live up to expectations so far, and while there is plenty of blame to go around, a large chunk of it sits squarely on Smith’s shoulders. 

Consistency has never been a word associated with Smith, but rarely has confidence been so far removed from his vocabulary. 

Smith expressed frustration when the Cavaliers inserted the newly acquired Dwyane Wade in the starting lineup. And while Wade eventually accepted a bench role, Smith has failed to live up to the title of starter on a championship contender. 

The Cavaliers’ shooting guard is having his worst year since the 2005-06 season, averaging 7.8 points and 2.9 rebounds per game while shooting just 37.8 percent from the field, including 34.7 percent from three on 5.1 attempts, his fewest in Cleveland. This, from a former Sixth Man of the Year who has averaged double figures in 11 of his 13 seasons. 

Amid the lineup changes and struggles, Smith even started passing up open shots.  

In 50 games, Smith has reached double figures just 16 times, with 17 outings of five points or less. He has four games with no made field goals and a four-game stretch during the season’s opening month in which he made just one shot in each game. 

Gone is the confident J.R. Smith who garnered adoration and disgust and continued on his own way with little regard for either. 

He and Isaiah Thomas have struggled to mesh as a starting backcourt and, given the dysfunction within the Cavaliers’ organization right now, it’s almost impossible to say when or if they’ll ever become a cohesive 1-2 punch.

Over the past 15 games, Cleveland has an offensive rating of just 104.9 per NBA.com, good for 20th in the NBA over that span. During these struggles, the Cavaliers are 6-9 and Smith is averaging 7.5 points on 31.4 percent shooting from deep, admitting his play has been below standards and telling ESPN he’s now be willing to accept a role off the bench. 

With Kevin Love due to miss time with a broken hand, however, Smith is needed in the starting lineup to help stretch the floor and will be counted on far more than he was during the opening months of the season. 

J.R. Smith played a key role in bringing Cleveland its first championship in 52 years. His flurry to begin the second half of Game  7 was arguably the Cavaliers’ most important stretch. And it was Smith who impeded Andre Iguodala’s progress to set LeBron James up form what is now known as, “The Block.” 

Things appear to be crumbling in Cleveland and the next two months will likely go a long way in determining the future of the franchise. It’s safe to say the Cavaliers are their own words enemy at this point, and Smith is at the forefront of a problematic group on the verge of implosion. 

To right the ship, the Cavaliers don’t need Smith to play like the best player in the world. But they will need him to return to playing like he thinks he is. 

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