When we last saw veteran shooter and scorer J.R. Smith in the NBA, the league was trying to rescue its 2019-20 season by playing it out in the Orlando bubble, with Smith having signed on with the Lakers in a post-deadline acquisition that was expected to provide some depth and shooting.
Smith, though, did not play much for the Lakers. He averaged just 2.8 points in six regular season games, then played just 7.5 minutes in 10 games in the playoffs. Smith won a ring with the Lakers that year, but did not contribute much.
After that, he did not get another NBA job. And Smith told Complex there is a reason for that: He was blackballed, with the league somehow conspiring to keep him out.
When the “blackballed” question was put to him, Smith’s response was unambiguous. “Yeah, 100%,” he said. “I mean, anybody can sit here and tell you that that’s a, that’s a fact.”
Smith Had Contract Issue With Cavaliers
Smith has a point about how his career in the NBA ended, though to say he was “blacklisted” is probably a bit overstated. Smith had been traded to Cleveland in 2015 to help bolster LeBron James’ Cavaliers, and for four seasons, he did that, helping the Cavs to four straight Finals appearances.
But when James left the Cavs for the Lakers in 2018, Smith was 33 years old and stuck with a rebuilding Cavs team that told him he would be given a much-reduced role. After 10 games, Smith and the Cavs agreed he should sit out until the team could trade him. Smith had shot 37.5% from the 3-point line the previous season, averaging 8.3 points, but his $14.7 million salary made him difficult to move.
Ultimately, no trade came to pass but even after that, the Cavs refused to buy out Smith—because he had another partially guaranteed year on his deal after 2018-19. Cleveland hoped it could still trade him that summer, but eventually, the team waived him.
It was, then, mostly his contract that kept him from getting another job. But Smith sees it as a blackballing.
“You got those 30 teams,” he said. “You got the Top 3 people on those 30 teams and exclude them. Give me the (No.) 4 through 15th men, just the four through 15. Name one of them that’s better than me. But I’m sitting here like, bro, like, I’ve worked out with these dudes. I’ve watched their GM come up to me and ask me, ‘J.R., why you not playing?’ You know why I’m not playing.”
A Whole Genre?
More likely, the reason Smith was not playing is because of his advancing age and his inability to do much else on the floor but shoot. Even that skill seemed to wane, as Smith shot just 35.8% from the arc in his final four years. He had shot 37.5% in 12 years before that.
Smith has since pulled himself in an entirely new direction, going to college (he entered the NBA from high school) and playing for North Carolina A&T’s golf team. He registered a 4.0 GPA in his first semester and won the school’s Academic Athlete of the Year award.
Still, the NBA is on his mind. Smith said there are a number of players—again, guys who were as much felled by age as blackballing—who experienced the same thing as he did.
“I feel like there is a whole genre that happened to,” he said. “Joe Johnson, obviously, still got game, can still play. Jamal Crawford, still got game, still can play. Nick Young, still got game, still could play. Isaiah Thomas, still got game, still can play.”
Two others on that list—Thomas and Young—are former Lakers, too.