Malcontent. Unstoppable. Volatile. Enigmatic.
These are just some of the adjectives that have come to describe J.R. Smith has he navigates through the turbulent twists and turns of his NBA career — not all of which have been highlight moments. And now as the rest of the league enters its final month of the summer before preparing for training camps to begin, Smith finds himself without a deal to take the court next season.
After ending the 2014-15 campaign in the NBA Finals with the Cleveland Cavaliers after riding LeBron James to get there — not to mention his PhunkeeDuck — Smith finds himself in an awkward spot. Although he had an option to return to Cleveland on his terms and at his price of more than $6 million, Smith opted out of his deal in search of a more lucrative contract. And in doing so, Smith made a critical mistake.
There was an expectation that the Cavs would be quick to re-sign him following the trade that brought Smith and Iman Shumpert to Cleveland, but it was Shumpert who got the $40 million deal that Smith thought he might collect. And as the summer wore on and the Cavs continued to spend copious amounts of cash, Smith sat on the sidelines waiting for a check that never came. Now with rosters full and teams searching just for bargain bin and/or training camp additions to evaluate before the action gets going, Smith’s bad bluff — the same one the Cavs called — has never been more evident.
It’s hard to understand the logic behind Smith’s decision-making process. Although he was facing a deadline to make the call, it’s not like Smith was going to dent his value if he remained in Cleveland on his previous contract. While no one can predict injuries, Smith was looking at a similar role on James’s title-contending Cavaliers, the same team that revitalized his reputation and provided a path to get paid during the 2016 offseason, a time when the salary cap should be around $90 million. Smith wasn’t giving up anything other than long-term security if he picked up his option, and while that’s something every person desires in any line of work, overlooking and undervaluing the present at the expense of the future is a mistake one can’t make as a professional athlete. Your window of earnings is limited, your age is directly going to impact your income and your only path to control that process is through regularly outperforming your previous achievements despite growing older.
While recently visiting Guam as part of his work with Cavs director of player development Phil Handy and Handy’s 94 Feet of Game program, Smith spoke on his free agency (via Grant Wieman of the Pacific Daily News):
“I just want to be somewhere I can make a difference,” Smith said. “I don’t want to be somewhere I can’t have an affect on the team. I would love to be a starter, but it depends on the situation and what team I’m on. Cleveland is in a situation where they don’t really need me to start. I can come off the bench and bring the energy and stuff like that.”
That sounds like a tepid endorsement for some warm tap water, not a ringing endorsement to return to a team that fell a few games short of winning the NBA Finals. Smith isn’t going to find a better situation than the one he’s been in with James and Co., and any leverage he thought he had going into this process has effectively evaporated into general manager David Griffin’s back pocket.
Several weeks prior, Griffin addressed Smith’s contract status and his potential return to the club (via Chris Haynes of Cleveland.com):
“With J.R., I wouldn’t want to characterize the discussion or anything, but he’s a player I’d like to have back. We just have to find a way to make it work.”
Again, more tap water.
Smith is a player who’s fattened his bank roll with electric shot-making, unbelievable athleticism and plays that make your jaw drop for both good and bad reasons. He was worth gambling on last season.
But what about this time around?
For the Cavs, Smith is the delicious but potentially disgusting ingredient that’s optional but not totally necessary. Think of it like this: You’re making dinner to surprise your significant other. You’ve got all of the fixin’s in there, and at the last second you have a genius idea to add a bold twist to the prepared recipe that you think can add an extra kick to the mix. That’s the perfect way to describe Smith, who could push the meal to new heights or drag it down completely depending on what else is involved. With LeBron, Kevin Love, Kyrie Irving and expectations to win a title every season, Cleveland has to measure its every move — sometimes twice or three times — before making a decision.
While Smith’s free-agent standoff could (and should) end in his return to LeBron’s band of brothers, declining his $6.4 million option for the 2015-16 season serves as a reminder to fringe free agents of the future:
Always be ready to execute your next move.