Will J.R. Smith ever grow up?
New York Knicks officials must be asking themselves this question after the shooting guard's latest foray into the tabloid section. He was most recently suspended for five games by the NBA for violating the league's substance abuse policy. Sources identified the "substance" as marijuana to Yahoo! Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski.
This news came after the Knicks rewarded the reigning Sixth Man of the Year with a three-year, $18 million contract only to have him undergo surgery on a long-standing knee injury.
While addressing the situation at a team practice, Smith expressed regret for his suspension and for letting down the organization.
"I'm more disappointed because I let my teammates and my coaches down more than anything," Smith said, according to ESPN New York's Ian Begley. "I let [Knicks owner James] Dolan down."
Gradually, Smith has regressed back into the sideshow he was no longer supposed to be. Coach Mike Woodson, who has largely been credited with "curing" the combative 28-year-old, has since made it clear Smith needs to "grow up."
"But at the end of the day, he's got to do the right thing by J.R., and his teammates and me as a coach in this organization and the fans that support him," Woodson mused, via Begley. "That's what it's all about."
If it's evident that Smith doesn't understand what it's all about, the Knicks may soon find they have no choice but to put his one-man circus act on the chopping block.
Is Smith Worth the Trouble Right Now?
In some ways, yes.
Bleacher Report's Grant Hughes did a terrific job outlining Smith's troubles since entering the league in 2004. His transgressions since joining the Knicks in 2011-12 include being fined $25,000 for posting an inappropriate photo of model Tahiry Jones on Twitter and orchestrating an innuendo-laced conversation with a female fan on the same platform, among other things.
Now this failed drug test and subsequent suspension have been added to his resume. How can someone this immature be worth all the trouble?
Quite simply, the Knicks have no choice. The money they gave him couldn't be spent on anyone else. They were capped out over the summer, and Smith's $5.7 million salary seems reasonable.
Statistically speaking, he isn't burning a hole in New York's wallet. He's criticized for his sub-par efficiency (42.2 percent shooting in 2012-13), but for the numbers he generated last year, he was well worth the payday.
Only eight players in the NBA averaged at least 18 points, five rebounds, 2.5 assists and one steal per game last season. Smith was one of them, joining LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Rudy Gay, Paul Pierce, Russell Westbrook, Kobe Bryant and Blake Griffin.
Of the other seven, not one of them will earn under $15.3 million (Pierce) in 2013-14; Smith's salary is barely one-third of that.
Over the offseason, the Knicks couldn't pass on the opportunity to retain him. The Indiana Pacers poached Chris Copeland, and neither the budding Iman Shumpert nor the newly acquired Andrea Bargnani represents guaranteed production. Amar'e Stoudemire's mysterious bill of health heightened the need for a consistent scorer even further.
Allowing Smith to walk for the price they paid would have saved the team a few migraines but left a gaping hole in the offensive scheme that the Knicks may or may not have been able to fill. That's true even now.
They don't know what they'll get from Shumpert, Bargnani or STAT. And until they're sold on the team having a reliable second-leading scorer in the waiting, Smith will remain an offensive necessity.
When Won't He Be Worth the Headaches?
Soon. Very, very soon.
If either Shumpert or Bargnani can emerge as New York's second scorer, Smith will become expendable. In other words, he's eventually going to become expendable.
Bargnani has done nothing but score his entire career. Despite multiple bouts with injuries, he's averaged 15.2 points per game through seven years. Before last season, when he played just 35 games, he was the Toronto Raptors' go-to scorer. If he's able to stay healthy, he's more than capable of putting points on the board next to Carmelo Anthony.
"I know what he can do," 'Melo said of him, per Newsday's Al Iannazzone. "And for me, it helps me out a lot now to have another stretch four that can stretch the court, that can shoot, that create off the dribbles, create for him, create for others. It's another weapon we have."
Shumpert is another weapon. Now entering his third season, the guard is coming off an impressive postseason performance that saw him regain explosion and develop into a consistent offensive threat.
During the playoffs, he notched 11 points, 4.9 rebounds, 2.7 assists and 1.6 steals per-36 minutes while draining 40.2 percent of his deep balls. His three-point shooting sparked the Knicks' comeback attempt—that ultimately fell short—in Game 6 against the Pacers.
His importance to the team isn't lost on Anthony either, who figures his companion for a future star, according to the New York Post's Marc Berman. Like Smith, Shumpert can log minutes as a combo guard and small forward, and he's held in high esteem for his defense.
Should both Bargnani and Shumpert fill the roles they'll be asked to, retaining Smith would no longer be a necessity. In the unlikely event STAT evolves into more than an expensive sideline fixture, Smith would become even less valuable to the team.
Conventional wisdom suggests the Knicks will learn a lot about Smith during his absence. The time he misses to start the season due to injuries and his suspension gives them an opportunity to gauge Shumpert and Bargnani's offensive values and even give rookie Tim Hardaway Jr., another wing, some burn as well.
By that logic, the Knicks are one hot start away from seeing the light at the end of Smith's dark, dank tunnel.
Would They Trade Him and, If so, When?
Hell yes, and sooner than you think.
NBA.com's John Schuhmann put Smith's future in perspective after he signed his new contract, writing that a bigger plan might be at play:
But again, there was no way to replace Smith’s points and minutes with someone of equal value had the Knicks just let him walk. And his contract is reasonable enough that he could eventually be traded.
That may be the Knicks’ ultimate plan. They couldn’t sign a new player for full mid-level ($5 million per year) money, but they could sign Smith and then eventually trade him for a guy (presumably a better fit) making mid-level money.
Hoopsworld's Steve Kyler previously reported the Knicks are prepared to let 'Melo build his own team in 2015, when Smith has a player option for the last year of his deal and New York has just $290,000 in guaranteed contracts on the books (as of now).
Assuming Anthony re-signs (he will), they'll still have room to court any free agents their king wants if they get rid of Smith and Raymond Felton. Smith's salary for 2015-16 ($6.4 million), along with Felton's ($3.9 million), will be easy to dump, allowing the Knicks to maximize their spending power.
But I'm going to take it one step further for those who believe in miracles.
Leading into 2014-15, the Knicks have just $27.3 million in guaranteed salaries on their tab. That figure doesn't include what it would take to re-sign Anthony (roughly $22.6 million to start) or the player options that Stoudemire ($23.4 million) and Bargnani ($11.5 million) will pick up.
With Tyson Chandler ($14.6 million), Bargnani and Stoudemire all on expiring deals, the Knicks could look to expedite the rebuilding process by dealing all of them in exchange for cap relief. Successfully doing so would allow them to become free-agency players in 2014, when LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Kobe Bryant and just about every superstar under the sun could be available.
Even in its last year, Stoudemire's contract will likely prove immovable. But if it isn't, the Knicks will move it and pave the road to creating immediate cap room in feasible salary dumps.
Continue to look at 2015. That's when the Knicks are assured of some financial flexibility and will make a pitch to all the big names.
Keep next summer in your sights too. Faced with the threat of losing Anthony, general manager Steve Mills and the Knicks may get creative. They may have no choice. Driven by the fear of losing their best player, the Knicks could move Smith (after Jan. 15) and anyone else within reason to open up room.
Whenever the salary purge takes place, expect Smith to be a part of it. He's not going to be flipped for a better piece because of his value at his current price tag—not unless he's packaged with, say, a Chandler (maybe) or Shumpert (no way).
Cleaning up his act won't do much good either. It would merely prolong the inevitable. Smith isn't going to be on New York's roster come the 2015-16 season. Pencil that in now. The need to chase multiple stars that summer will force the Knicks to deal him before the 2014-15 campaign is out.
If he even lasts that long.
"I call it 'pissing the NBA gods off,'" Smith said of his poor playoff performance after elbowing the Boston Celtics' Jason Terry, per Begley. "You're making, making, making a lot of shots -- and you mess with the basketball game and the game gets you back. And it definitely got me back."
If he pisses off the powers that be in New York one more time, Smith won't make it out of this season as a member of the Knicks.