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Column: It’s time for the Cavaliers to budge and re-sign J.R. Smith

Cleveland Cavaliers' LeBron James, left, stands with J.R. Smith during the sixth inning of Game 2 of a baseball American League Division Series between the Cleveland Indians and the Boston Red Sox, Friday, Oct. 7, 2016, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/David Dermer)
AP Photo/David Dermer

The Cleveland Cavaliers and J.R. Smith have been in the middle of a stalemate in their contract negotiation for a while now. There hasn’t really been news about it until this past Sunday, when a rumor that should help expedite things surfaced: The Boston Celtics are now reportedly interested in Smith, according to the New York Daily News’ Frank Isola.

Now, as Isola mentions, Boston would actually have to make some moves to open up enough room to sign Smith to the deal he wants. Losing one rotation player plus a young piece for Smith doesn’t seem like something the Celtics should be in any rush to do, especially since they have a starting shooting guard in place in Avery Bradley. In all likelihood, the rumor comes from Smith’s agent, Rich Paul, who is probably trying to leverage a mild interest from another team into a better offer for his client.

Yet even if that’s the case, it doesn’t matter. The fact that there is even a minuscule chance that Smith signs elsewhere should spur the Cavaliers’ front office into action.

There’s no getting around the fact that Cleveland needs J.R. Smith. He’s simply their best option at shooting guard, by far. Iman Shumpert was a disaster last season, shooting 37 percent from the floor and 29 percent from beyond the arc. Jordan McRae played under 200 minutes his rookie year and is a poor defender. Mike Dunleavy Jr. is 36 years old and has missed a combined 70 games over the past two seasons. They could all contribute off the bench, but relying on them is just not smart. Not for a team hoping to contend.

The same could have been said about Smith for most of his career, but he’s turned things around. He’s now a deadly marksman who can do a passable job defending most shooting guards in the league. He’s still athletic enough to make plays in transition. Since he’s almost exclusively a catch-and-shoot guy now, he barely makes mistakes, averaging under a turnover per game despite playing 30 minutes a night last season. He’s a credible starting 3-and-D wing in his prime, and those get paid.

Is he worth the $15 million a year he’s reportedly asking for? It doesn’t really matter. The Cavaliers can give him that, but they can’t sign anyone else for that money. There’s no way they can get an upgrade without making a trade and losing depth elsewhere, which they can’t afford to do if they hope to navigate the regular season and compete with the Golden State Warriors. Despite their understandable posturing, they need Smith back because they can’t get a replacement.

Now, the luxury tax concerns are real, and it’s hard to blame the front office and owner Dan Gilbert for trying to drive a hard bargain. The Cavaliers are about to pay the much harsher repeater tax after being over the line for three straight years. They also will be over the apron, which severely limits their flexibility to add players going forward. Signing Smith is a big decision. Yet the Cavaliers have already made it. They don’t want to let him go or they would have moved on by now. The question is the price tag.

That’s an issue because we’ve seen LeBron James react poorly to owners not being willing to spend. When Miami Heat owner Micky Arison traded away Mike Miller, LeBron wasn’t particularly happy. We know how he feels about losing Smith, since he has already been stumping for him hard and has been all around Cleveland with him, clearly showing that he wants him back. The risk of alienating James is simply not worth the money Cleveland would save by getting Smith to lower his demands.

FILE - In this Dec. 15, 2015, file photo, Cleveland Cavaliers' LeBron James and J.R. Smith (5) dance before an NBA basketball game against the Boston Celtics in Boston. James stepped into free agent J.R. Smith’s contract situation Friday, Sept. 30, 2016, and said the Cavs need to sign the shooting guard. Smith had a major role in the Cavs winning an NBA title last season and James feels he’s earned a new deal. Smith made $5 million last season.  (AP Photo/Winslow Townson, File)

AP Photo/Winslow Townson, File

In Cleveland’s defense, it’s a complex dynamic whenever a player has so much power. The Cavaliers setting a hard line in negotiations with Paul, who is also LeBron’s agent, in consecutive offseasons might be their way of marking a line in the sand. Just because James wants something, it doesn’t mean the franchise will bend over backwards to give it to him. If that was the intention, refusing to sign Smith until there are only two weeks to opening day proved that point. Now it’s time to come to an agreement.

The negotiation has simply reached a point in which the more the Cavalirs wait, the bigger the risks they are taking. There’s a small possibility that the Celtics are indeed actually interested, and if Smith loses his patience he might decide to move on. If that happens, not only would it have a serious impact on the Cavaliers’ chances of repeating as champions, but it could also hurt their long-term relationship with LeBron James. It’s just not worth it.

The more time the Cavaliers take before signing Smith, the more James will appear irritated and the more rumors linking him to other teams will surface. It’s unlikely, but it might even result in Smith leaving. Letting the situation play out made sense two months ago, but now it’s better to come to a resolution before things continue to escalate.

Cleveland has to up its offer and ask Smith to leave at least some money in the table, so both parties can save face. That can only happen if they suddenly become proactive about retaining their starting shooting guard. The sooner that happens, the sooner the Cavaliers can go back to focusing on the bigger picture instead of dealing with a nuisance that could become a real problem if left unattended much longer.

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