J.R. Smith officially underwent surgery to repair a right thumb fracture on Friday morning, according to a press release issued by the Cavaliers. Within the announcement, the team notes that Smith’s timeline to return to the court is currently projected at 12 to 14 weeks.
We already knew that Smith would require surgery on his injured thumb, and that he would miss an extended period while he recovered from that procedure, but three months is a long time for the Cavs to be without one of their top outside shooters. If Smith were to return 12 weeks from today, he would be back for the final 15 games of Cleveland’s season, having missed more than half of the 2016/17 campaign.
The Cavaliers’ 15-man roster already includes one player who has retired (Mo Williams) and one player who is out for the season (Chris Andersen), so they’ll essentially have three “dead” roster spots during Smith’s absence, with only 12 healthy players at their disposal. The Cavs won’t be eligible for a hardship exception to add a 16th player to its roster, since approval for that exception requires a team to have at least four players sidelined with injuries.
The Cavs will also have limited flexibility to turn over those roster spots belonging to players like Williams and Anderson, given how far their team salary is into tax territory — waiving someone and signing a replacement would be much more expensive than usual due to the escalating tax penalties. That projected tax bill may also make Cleveland wary of using its trade exceptions to acquire players and increase team salary, though the club does have four TPEs, including one worth more than $9.6MM.
Smith, who signed a lucrative new four-year contract with the Cavaliers this fall, had gotten off to a slow start in 2016/17. The 31-year-old has seen his scoring average dip to just 8.6 PPG, and his .337 FG% is easily a career worst, though he’s still making 36.2% of his three-pointers.