Somewhere in the middle of the Lakers-Knicks game on Christmas Day, J.R. Smith took one of his ridiculous fadeaway jumpers off one leg, made it, and Jeff Van Gundy said, "J.R. Smith is a good bad shot maker." It was the first time I'd ever heard him described that way, and it's perfect.
Later that night, again announcing from Staples Center, Van Gundy said the same thing about Clippers guard Jamal Crawford. "Good bad shot maker." GOOD BAD SHOT MAKER. We got 12 hours of basketball on Christmas Day and that's only lesson from Christmas we really need to remember. With four words, Jeff Van Gundy accidentally described a hundred different players in NBA history who've been exciting and maddening and addictive and unquestionably bad for your health.
It's especially relevant today because J.R. Smith hit a game-winner in Phoenix Wednesday night, and it was as great a bad shot as you'll ever see:
Almost exactly a year ago, I was in China visiting a friend, and we took a three-hour train to go see J.R. Smith play in an industrial city called Yiwu, where he'd been playing for the entire year because of the NBA lockout. The train got there right as the game was starting, and we were about 10 minutes from the stadium, but sensing an opportunity with two foreigners who had no idea where they were, our cab driver took us on an hour-long drive all over Yiwu, because of course he did. So we got to the game somewhere in the middle of the second half.
Now, imagine the laziest, most discouraging body language you've ever seen from a pro basketball player, and then somehow imagine worse. That was the J.R. Smith we saw that night in Yiwu, a city that produces three billion pairs of socks per year, and has also been called "a sort of Wall Street for the counterfeiting industry."
But even if he looked totally miserable, he was still J.R. Smith. So as we sat down and finished laughing at his amazing body language, J.R. went to work. Flat-footed pull ups from five feet behind the arc ... Turnaround fadeaway threes ... Pull-up threes on a fast break ... More turnaround fadeaways from 22 feet and beyond.
And he made EVERYTHING.
Or at least, like, 70 percent of everything. I remember him making pretty much everything, but more importantly, I remember the 5,000 or so Chinese fans going nuts for this whole show. The fans banged thundersticks the whole time (Chinese basketball fans LOVE thundersticks), and it ended with everyone chanting "J.R." over and over again as the game turned into a blowout and he checked out.
"JAY-AHH! JAY-AHH! JAY-AHH!"
It was like they were watching Michael Jordan.
We mention this today because it's important to remember: As recently as a year ago, that's how J.R. Smith's career was supposed to go. He's the classic "good player who puts up stats on a horrible team" -- it seemed like he'd had his shot on a contender with Denver, and that's probably where things were going to peak for him. Even after the lockout ended and he came back to America, nobody would've been surprised if the rest of his career ended with him gunning away his prime in the NBA's version of Yiwu.
His destiny was supposed to be taking (and sometimes making) ridiculous shots in obscurity for perpetuity. Just like most of the other great bad shot makers throughout history. Because that label only fits if you're not quite good enough to be a superstar.
Kobe takes a lot of horrible shots, but he's good enough so that everyone says, "A bad shot from Kobe is a better shot than anything from [insert crappy teammate]." Same with Allen Iverson when he was in his prime, or even Russell Westbrook in OKC. With guys like Jamal Crawford and J.R. Smith, they're not quite good enough to pull it off without everyone noticing how insane that trademark leaning, twisting 20-footer was/is/always will be.
More often, these guys end up like Jordan Crawford. I watch way too many Wizards games, and as horrible as the Wizards are at every level of the organization, Crawford at least makes the games entertaining. His egregious shot selection is its own sort of masterpiece every night, and the ones makes never stop being incredible. But it's all happening on a team that's 3-23, which actually sounds about right. That's where almost-superstar scorers belong -- just good enough to shoot themselves onto an NBA team, just reckless enough to never end up on a winner.
All of which is to say, it's been pretty great watching Jamal Crawford (no relation beyond kindred spirits) evolve into one of the Clippers' deadliest weapons in L.A. this year (16.5 ppg in 29 min), and even better seeing J.R. Smith become everyone's favorite player on the Knicks, everyone's favorite team in 2012. You can credit Smith and Crawford for maturing the same way someone like Jason Terry matured before them, but their basic approach hasn't really changed. They just wound up on teams where their radioactive skills can shine without killing everyone.
"Knowing JR, it's almost better for him to take a tougher shot," Tyson Chandler said after the game-winner on Wednesday night. "It seems like he makes the tougher shots." The bad shots are falling, and his teammates love him -- not in spite of his insanity, I think, but because of it. It's like there's been a glitch in the matrix.
If you wanted to be a douche about it, you could say that in the past five years sports has become awash in analysis and metrics that can sometimes turn everything into an elaborate spreadsheet full of power rankings and efficiency ratings, and that every time guys like J.R. Smith or Jamal Crawford take and make a horrible shot that breaks the other team's back, it really is a glitch in an actual matrix somewhere, and a reminder that the best moments in sports are the ones that make absolutely no sense, where all you can do is laugh out loud and shake your head.
But really, besides all that, it's just great to see J.R. Smith winning meaningful games with his drunken approach to everything, and the same goes for Jamal Crawford. Good bad shot makers are always fun, but when they somehow become crucial role players on two of the best teams in the NBA, then the entire world can enjoy them in all their ridiculous glory. So what I'm saying is, we're a long way from Yiwu. Isn't it awesome?