Any time a team loses a key starter, they will more than likely lose a bit of steam. This is not news.
It is also no secret that the Cavaliers’ level of play has dropped significantly since Smith underwent surgery on his thumb. This could be due to a number of things.
The annual January lull is upon them, and replacements at the position – DeAndre Liggins and Jordan McRae – are not exactly starter-level talents at this point in their careers. Neither of those things help the team in the absence of Smith.
But to what degree?
In the 26 games prior to Smith’s injury, the Cavaliers held teams under 100 points 11 separate times, compared to the 4 times in the 26 games since.
Offensively, the Cavs finished under 100 points in four games, compared to seven times in the same amount of time since the injury.
Last season, lineups featuring Smith owned a +6.7 margin per 100 possessions with Smith on the floor, compared to +0.4 without him. This season, the wine and gold are an improved +6.1 without Smith, but were playing at a balmy +9.8 with him. The +4.7 margin with Smith on the floor in two years worth of games is the highest for the shooting guard in any of his four stops in the league.
There are potential caveats in any of these numbers, especially the LeBron effect of Smith’s time in Cleveland, and potential pace changes – the number of possessions per game/minute – with and without Smith on the floor. Regardless, the numbers show a serious positive impact with Smith around.
Obviously there is no real basis for declaring any team’s top players as a “Big Three,” “Four,” or otherwise, nor is there any real merit or meaning behind the saying, but Smith has become as good a fourth fiddle in the NBA.
The first comparison as far as famous fourths go would be Draymond Green in Golden State, the man who posted a triple-double with four points on Friday. Green was not a fourth-fiddle until one of the top-three players in the NBA joined his team in the off-season by way of a loophole in the NBA salary cap, and there is no real comparison.
That being said, Smith was more efficient as a scorer than Green in 2015-16, even while the Warriors forward carried a higher usage percentage.
Green is incomparable when it comes to the other four major statistics, especially to Smith, who doesn’t handle the ball nearly as often as Green. Draymond is also among the elite defenders in the league, with a double-digit defensive rating and a league-leading defensive box plus-minus.
You can look at other guards for the elite teams like the Spurs and Clippers with Tony Parker and Jamal Crawford, respectively, but neither can contend. Both carry a higher usage percentage than both Smith and Green, and score at a less efficient level. When defensive metrics are considered, neither can even hold up.
Do the Cavaliers have a Big Four? Maybe.
It probably doesn’t matter, because they are a much different team without him.