Among those who have helped keep the Knicks afloat during their bout with injuries this season was J.R. Smith, the only player on the team's roster to have played in 80 games this year. The 27-year-old New Jersey native arguably became the team's most important offensive weapon when Carmelo Anthony and Amare Stoudemire were inactive. With recent rumblings that Smith is likely to opt out at season's end, the winner of the NBA's 2012-13 Sixth Man of the Year award will undoubtedly enter the summer an entirely different commodity than he did nearly one year ago.
The Knicks saw significant roster changes during the 2012 offseason, including the departure of starting shooting guard Landry Fields. Though Smith entered training camp with his eyes on an opportunity to earn a starting position (ESPN NY), head coach Mike Woodson ultimately decided it was best to bring him off the bench, a role which the enigmatic shooting guard accepted and consistently thrived in. Other than the Clippers, the Knicks were the only other team in the NBA to feature a two-guard reserve as their second leading scorer, with Smith averaging a career-high 18.1 PPG. The 6'6 guard had also been an important contributor in other areas, averaging 5.3 RPG (also a career high) and 1.3 steals per game.
Interestingly enough, Smith made around $2.8MM this season, which was less than the annual contracts of Jason Kidd, Raymond Felton, Marcus Camby, and Steve Novak (in addition to Anthony, Stoudemire, and Tyson Chandler). With a player option of $2.9MM next year, it was no surprise to hear talk that Smith plans to become an unrestricted free agent this summer. Despite Smith's recent statement that he'd love to retire as a Knick, the possible financial overtures from other teams during the upcoming offseason may be too lucrative to pass up at this point in his career.
We've already mentioned New York's Early Bird rights on Smith, which would allow them to offer at least a two-year contract starting at 104.5% of this year's average salary. With that being said, there are more than a handful of teams from both conferences expected to have significant cap room this summer. Though June's draft could considerably play a role in determining team needs heading into free agency, a franchise like the Suns – who struck out last summer in their pursuit of Eric Gordon – could jump at the opportunity to land a scorer like Smith.
For his position and role as a scorer compared to several other prominent scoring wings in the league, an offer starting at around $5MM from the Knicks would be easy for teams with ample cap room to outbid. Looking at J.R's season averages more closely (18.1 PPG, 5.3 RPG, and 2.7 APG in 33.3 MPG) and comparing that to Rudy Gay (16.1/6.1/2.7/35.8) and Joe Johnson (16.5/3.5/3.0/36.7), Smith has certainly made a case to earn the biggest contract of his career, considering the latter two are currently signed to max-contracts. While I'm not advocating that Smith receive a max-deal, his next contract should indubitably be more than what he has been earning over the last two seasons.
In March, Smith averaged 22.1 PPG and 6.0 free throw attempts per game while shooting 44.2% from the field and 34.5% from long distance. In April, he averaged 22.0 PPG, 4.5 FTA, and shot 48.3% overall along with 40.0% from deep. Smith's production over the final two months of the season was very impressive, considering New York's 13-game winning streak and 16-2 finish over the remaining 18 games to help clinch the second seed in the Eastern Conference. The notable increase in his presence as a scoring threat can be majorly attributed to his focus on attacking the basket and getting to the free throw line in addition to a more disciplined shot selection (as Tommy Beer of HoopsWorld chronicled last month).
Though we've yet to see how he'll continue to perform for the rest of the postseason, Smith can market himself as having played the best regular season of his career. Set to turn 28 in September, the New Jersey native is settled into his NBA prime and has shown the ability to be an important and efficient contributor on a 50-plus win team. While I wouldn't necessarily label him among the summer's big fishes in free agency, he's definitely a significant one whether he remains in New York or decides to change addresses.