J.R. Smith will continue to inspire screaming, shouting and wailing in NYC. (Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
The NBA’s premiere Jekyll-and-Hyde act will return to Broadway this season, as ever-mercurial shooting guard J.R. Smith and the New York Knicks have agreed to a four-year deal worth nearly $25 million, according to Frank Isola of the New York Daily News. The deal brings the reigning Sixth Man of the Year and remarkable playoff flameout/goat back to a team that needs his shooting/secondary playmaking and fears his shot-jacking/arctic cold snaps in nearly equal measure.
Isola and Yahoo! Sports NBA columnist Adrian Wojnarowski reported Wednesday that team and player were nearing a pact, with the specific terms remaining unsettled. Marc Berman of the New York Post quoted Smith’s (very interesting) father, Earl Sr., as saying his son could sign as early as Friday to the contract he wound up receiving, provided no team offered “a crazy amount of money” for J.R.’s services. Apparently, no other team did.
Smith reportedly drew interest from several teams, including the Milwaukee Bucks, Phoenix Suns and Detroit Pistons. Barring a world-beating offer, though, none of those situations ever seemed much like a fit for Smith — or, at least, not nearly as good a fit as New York, where Smith established himself last season as a No. 2 scoring option playing starter’s minutes on a playoff team with (for better or worse) a seemingly limitless leash under head coach Mike Woodson. If the money’s roughly equal, the opportunity’s as good (if not better) and the, um, nightlife’s a factor, then why not re-up in New York?
The exact terms of that re-up won’t be confirmed until July 10, when the league’s annual moratorium on trades and free-agent signings concludes, but Smith will reportedly receive the maximum amount the Knicks could pay him as a result of having what the collective bargaining agreement refers to as his “Early Bird rights.”
The Early Bird exception allows teams to go over the salary cap to re-sign free agents who’ve played for them for two seasons without clearing waivers or changing teams. The highest number the Knicks could offer would be a four-year deal that starts at 104.5 percent of the 2012-13 league-average salary and increases by 7.5 percent every season. That, reportedly, is precisely what the Knicks have done.
Given the shortfalls in Smith’s game — the high-volume shooting, the relative offensive inefficiency, the tendency to ball-watch and fall asleep on defense, the possession-commandeering, etc. — you could argue that $6 million-plus a season is an overpay. And in a vacuum, it probably is. Given the context of the Knicks’ situation, though, I’m not sure it is.. or, at least, not a massive one. (J.R. probably can’t get away with calling himself a bargain anymore, though.)
By constructing an obscenely expensive, top-heavy and capped-out roster with no financial flexibility and limited avenues through which to add/keep talent, Glen Grunwald, James Dolan and company created an environment heading into this offseason in which the only real options for bolstering the present team were the remaining future draft picks at the Knicks’ disposal (three of which they used, regrettably, to import Andrea Bargnani), the mini-midlevel exception of just under $3.2 million (which they’re reportedly hoping to split to bring back Chris Copeland and Pablo Prigioni, though keeping both with that low a number seems unlikely) and veteran minimum contracts (with which Grunwald and company will have to hit home runs in finding the next Copeland/Prigioni-type contributors).
There was virtually zero chance of the Knicks replacing Smith’s contributions while also improving the core with just the mini-MLE and minimum deals, making the use of his Early Bird rights the kind of thing a team trying to win a title now must do. Yes, the Knicks will now pay somewhere in the neighborhood of $85 million next season and closer to $90 million in 2014-15 for the core of a second-round team plus Bargnani and Tim Hardaway Jr., which is bananas. But they were already obscenely expensive, and the Knicks front office viewed Smith as having value to that core.
And for all his warts, he was an integral part of the best Knicks team in 16 years, buttressing his often-chaotic shooting/scoring game by working hard on the glass (grabbing a career-high 16.3 percent of opponents’ misses, averaging a career-best 5.3 rebounds per game), working well as a pick-and-roll ball-handler, and playing small forward more often and more effectively than in years past as part of the Knicks’ successful push toward small-ball lineups. The most tantalizing aspect of Smith’s ’12-’13 season, though, was his regular-season finish, in which he committed to attacking the basket to cut low-percentage looks out of his diet while generating a career-best amount of free-throw attempts en route to becoming one of the league’s most efficient offensive players.
For a month or so.
The most terrifying aspect, of course, was his postseason performance, in which a moment of lost composure resulted in a suspension that completely derailed his game, sending his shooting percentages spiraling south of 30 percent at the absolute worst possible time for a team in desperate need of a source of offensive firepower against a stalwart Indiana Pacers defense. (This, in an odd little twist of tortured fate, probably made it easier for the Knicks to hang onto Smith.)
By signing this deal, the Knicks are not making a bet that they’ll get Good J.R. rather than Bad J.R. They are acknowledging that they will get both, and that because this roster so desperately needs the former, they will have to live with the latter, and deal with the consequences. You pay your money and you take your chances, and nobody does more of both than the New York Knicks.
The other sticking point, from a Knicks fan’s perspective, are the final two years of Smith’s contract. According to Berman of the Post, the Knicks had discussed with Smith a two-year, $11.5 million contract that would afford Smith the option of hitting free agency again sooner (and with the Knicks holding full Bird rights, enabling them to pay him even more, if the two sides so chose) but would also keep New York on track to maintain maximum flexibility after 2014-15. That didn’t wind up happening, which is sort of a bummer in the longer term.
Those who made arguments in favor of (or, at least, not in total opposition to) the Bargnani deal noted that swapping Bargnani for sharpshooter Steve Novak actually saved New York money in the 2015-16 season, in which Novak is owed a guaranteed $3.75 million but Bargnani will be a free agent. That means the Knicks would only have Raymond Felton’s player option, Iman Shumpert’s qualifying offer and Hardaway Jr.’s rookie deal on the books that summer, priming the pump for a free-agent reload. Adding Smith to the ledger for ’15-’16 and ’16-’17 would seem to at least mitigate, if not undermine, that future flexibility.
There remains a chance that Smith doesn’t see the final year of the deal. For one thing, as NBA.com’s John Schuhmann notes, the dollar amount’s not so wild as to make Smith untradeable at any point during the life of the contract. For another, Isola and Howard Beck of the New York Times both reported Thursday that Smith will hold a player option for the fourth year, meaning he could once again opt out and seek a longer/more lucrative deal after the 2015-16 season, when he’ll be nearing age 31.
Still, the structure of the option places that decision in Smith’s hands, just as the recommitment makes Smith one of the primary determining factors of whether the Knicks can really become a viable title contender.
Deep breaths, Knicks fans. Deep breaths.