Shooting guard J.R. Smith, who was among the candidates to fill the Lakers’ roster spot that was eventually given to Dion Waiters, was a teammate of LeBron James for more than three years after being traded to Cleveland in January 2015.
Speaking on the Pat McAfee show this week, Smith said that he learned to appreciate James’ leadership style, which has come into sharp contrast with the bullying style of Michael Jordan thanks to this spring’s release of the ESPN documentary, “The Last Dance.”
The two players are so often compared. But Jordan, Smith said, was a lion. James is more of a tiger.
“When people compare them, there’s no comparison,” Smith told McAfee. “You can’t compare a lion and a tiger. They’re both cats but they’re not the same. The lion is the king of the jungle, Everyone bows down to the lion. But that don’t stop the tiger from saying, ‘Listen, mother——, I am a bad mother——, too.’”
While most still give Jordan the edge in the debate over the NBA’s greatest player in history, Smith said it is more complicated than just putting the two side-by-side. While Jordan was a relentless scorer who averaged 30.1 points, James is a better all-around player, whose 27.1 points per game are bolstered by the 7.4 rebounds and 7.4 assists he averages.
“You get somebody who is so well-rounded, rebounding, passing, dribbling, a good teammate, it’s totally different, it’s a totally different atmosphere,” Smith said. “He is totally different person than those guys.”
J.R. Smith Praised LeBron James as a Teammate
Smith said that James could also be an excellent teammate. Where Jordan became known for going after other players in practice, leading by punching, James (and, similarly, Lakers legend Kobe Bryant) is more of a hand-holder. As Smith explained:
He definitely holds you accountable. One thing about Bron, he leads by example with his work ethic. His biggest attribute is being able to pull people along with his work ethic. He doesn’t mind going to the gym and grabbing me, Kev, Tristan, R.J., Channing, Shump, Kyrie, like literally hand-by-hand and say, ‘Come on, we’re going to the gym we’re doing this, we’re doing that, we’re going to eat as a team, we’re going to do this, go here.’ He’s so very—obviously, it is easier for the better players to do it. But in my existence, Kobe didn’t do it, Jordan didn’t do it. A lot of players that have that, quote-unquote, killer mentality are not able to do it.
He’s not a scorer. A scorer is someone who has a one-track mind to do one individual thing. It’s like a sniper. If I am a sniper, I am out here to snipe people and pluck people off and that’s it. Jordan and Kobe and people like that, they did play defense but those were scorers. They were going to put up 50, 60, 70 points a night.
J.R. Smith Sought Job with Lakers
Smith also addressed his absence from the league going back to November 2018, when he was abruptly told by the Cavaliers to stay away from the team despite remaining under contract. He had played just 11 games in the season, averaging 6.7 points on 34.2 percent shooting.
Smith has said he felt betrayed by the Cavs, who told him in the offseason they were going to try to make a playoff push even after losing James to the Lakers in free agency. But rather than playing him or trading him, the Cavs just sent Smith into exile, finally buying him out the following summer. Smith, who is 34, has not had an NBA job since.
“It’s been a roller coaster because I’ve been in the league 15 years,” Smith said. “Since coming out of high school, this is all I’ve known as a man, as a kid, I have literally grown with the job. …To not be a part of something that I have been part of something for so long at the highest level, it is so deteriorating. Honestly, I felt like I was depressed, I felt like finding a purpose of getting up every day and doing something was a struggle for a long time. Fortunately, I have gotten out of that rut and got back into the love and appreciation of the game.”
He’s still available, he said, should the Lakers—or anyone—want to give him a call.
“I can’t wait to get back if I get an opportunity to,” Smith said. “I am ready for sure.”