Free Agent Stock Watch: J.R. Smith

The summer of 2015 provided one of the craziest starts to NBA free agency in recent memory. The projected salary cap rise for a year from now encouraged franchises to spend big on free agents and teams responded by doling out over $2 billion in contracts. J.R. Smith and his agent, Leon Rose, surely anticipated this and expected to draw from the free agency money tree. Thus far, that plan has not borne fruit.

Jan 23, 2015; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Cavaliers guard J.R.  Smith (5) reacts after hitting a three-point shot against the Charlotte Hornets during the first quarter at Quicken Loans Arena. Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

Courtesy of USA Today Sports Images

The Cavs would like to have him back, but apparently only on a modest one year deal. The team cautioned Smith against declining his $6.4MM option. While Cleveland has the ability to offer him a deal as lucrative as the one he turned down because it owns his Bird rights, the tax implications behind making such an offer would be pernicious from a financial standpoint. Assuming the Cavs sign Tristan Thompson to the mammoth contract he is holding out for, the team would be well into the luxury tax, meaning every dollar they shell out to Smith would cost them $3.75 or more in tax penalties.

The former Sixth Man of the Year is has reportedly been angling for a three-year contract. The Cavs simply cannot accommodate his request unless owner Dan Gilbert is willing to foot a massive tax bill over the next few years. Cleveland doesn’t have any significant money coming off the books in the next couple of seasons and it will have to account for a monstrous new contract for center Timofey Mozgov. Mozgov’s arrival turned a below-average defense into a stable unit, and he played a integral role in the team’s slaughtering of Eastern Conference foes en route to the NBA Finals. Gilbert may be willing to pay a large bill a year from now to retain a difference maker in Mozgov, but he’s most likely not going to do that for Smith.

Cleveland will reportedly let the market dictate what kind of contract it offers Smith, in an example of a team properly forecasting the NBA economy. The Cavs recognize that New York had to attach Iman Shumpert to the deal that sent Smith to Cleveland in order to move him, and if any team thought Smith was worth the price of his previous contract, it would have just taken him off Phil Jackson‘s hands for nothing.

The Jazz, Trail Blazers and Sixers are the only teams that are hoarding enough cap space to entertain a salary comparable to the option that Smith turned down. Philadelphia had ill-matched interest in Smith, but that interest has faded, according to Hoops Rumors contributor Sam Amico of Smith wants to be somewhere he can make a difference and he is just not a fit for any of the teams that are left with cap space.

Charlotte has the ability to offer the 29-year-old the full value of the mid-level exception, worth $5.464MM, as the team’s Salary Cap Page shows. The free agent market has dried up considerably and few remaining players outside of Smith can reasonably anticipate receiving a contract for nearly that amount. Let’s assume Smith is willing to concede on the value of his annual salary in favor of a longer deal that has more guaranteed money. The Hornets present an alluring situation for the shooting guard.

The team made a few gleaming upgrades this offseason with an eye on improving its overall shooting. New addition Nicolas Batum could slide into the starting two spot next to Michael Kidd-Gilchrist at the three to solidify the team’s starting five. The team added Jeremy Lin, in a team-friendly deal, to presumably run the second unit. After the top six players, the roster gets murky. The big man rotation looks to be adequate, especially if Frank Kaminsky’s game can translate immediately as expected, but the chatter about playing Kidd-Gilchrist at the four could further extend an already thin wing rotation.

The Hornets picked up Jeremy Lamb as a follow-up to the Lance Stephenson trade. Lamb showed flashes of becoming a serviceable rotation piece last season, but his inconsistency led him to see the bench more often than not for a Thunder team that was derailed with injuries. P.J. Hairston could be a contributor, but after a less-than-stellar rookie season in which he shot 30.1% from behind the arc, the prospect of increasing his role doesn’t bode well for a team looking to make the playoffs.

Smith can be a reliable and somewhat efficient offensive weapon. After being traded to Cleveland, his slash line improved from .402/.356/.692 in New York to .425/.390/.818. He was simply taking better shots. He went from being a second option on offense for the Knicks to arguably the fifth option (LeBron James is option one and two), and he mostly played within his lane. Kemba Walker, Al Jefferson and Batum would all rank ahead of him on offensive totem pole should he sign with Charlotte, which would give him a poor man’s version of what he had on the court with the Cavs. Signing with the Hornets would aid Smith in centralizing his focus on basketball as well.

I think [Cleveland] is the best situation for me, ’cause there’s nothing but basketball. There’s nothing you expect but basketball. There’s nothing, there’s no going out, there’s no late nights. There’s video games, basketball and basketball. So it’s a great thing, ’cause I go back to where I came from,” Smith said after being traded last season.

Nobody is mistaking the city of Charlotte for New York, Los Angeles or Miami in terms of its nightlife scene, so relocating to the Queen City may give the 29-year-old a similar environment to the one in which he thrived in Cleveland.

This is purely speculative, as the Hornets have not been linked to Smith in free agency, but adding the shooting guard makes sense for the team from an on-court perspective. Smith’s off-court antics, coupled with the franchise’s recent disaster signing of Stephenson, as Chuck Myron of Hoops Rumors discussed in his weekly chat, may impede a potential pairing. Charlotte clearly intends to compete for a playoff spot this season, but the team has noticeable flaws on its roster. The expected rise in the salary cap over the next few seasons, along with the team’s ability to use the stretch provision, should mitigate the risk of offering Smith a two-year deal worth the mid-level exception, and the Hornets should take the opportunity to add talent at such a minimal cost.

What kind of deal do you think Smith will end up signing? Leave a comment to let us know.

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3 thoughts on “Free Agent Stock Watch: J.R. Smith

  1. Eddie Scarito

    I’ll throw one more possibility out there for Smith…a return to China. He played overseas during the 2011/12 season, and he may be able to land a comparable deal over there (to what he’s in line to get now..not for the value of his player option, which I’m sure he’s kicking himself over opting out of)…which he may view as more palatable than taking a paycut to play for a non-contender. He’d then be free to catch on with an NBA team after the CBA season ends.

    I’m sure he’d prefer to remain in the NBA (and U.S)…but if he can’t work out a deal with the Cavs it could be a viable alternative.

  2. Jacob Jackson

    One year at the minimum with the Cavs. He needs to do the same thing that Gerald Green is attempting to do with the Heat: make good on a minimum deal and play his way into the big three-year deal next summer when the cap explodes.

    As a side note, the Cavs are really gonna breathe a sigh of relief if they manage to bring Delladova and Tristan back on their QOs, and JR Smith back at the vet’s minimum. To me that’s the most realistic scenario at this point. Combined with Mike Miller’s opt out and the savings that provided, it would end up being an exponentially lower tax bill than was expected to bring the whole band back for ’15-16.

    It’s a shame that the rest of the league didn’t put any pressure on the Cavs by making large offers to those guys. The Sixers and Blazers enter camp $10M+ below the salary floor while the Cavs are able to bring back their whole core and add Mo Williams on team-friendly deals.

    They are gonna waltz into the Finals again next year. Other teams shouldn’t have made it that easy for them.

  3. Chris Crouse

    China might actually be a decent option. He should have a few suitors should he be willing to take the minimum late in the season. This way, he’ll be able to get his money, but also play for a real contender.

    Only issue would be if the Cavs start rolling and Mo Williams provides the spark off the bench, the team may not want to mess with chemistry. In that scenario, maybe Miami or Charlotte takes a look at him.


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