NBA Free Agency 2011: 10 Key Factors in Denver Nuggets' J.R. Smith Decision
J.R. Smith's continued development and explosive play have made him an attractive candidate to re-sign with the Denver Nuggets, even as his foibles make the decision a difficult one. Very rarely do bench players garner this much offseason attention before free agency even begins.
The Nuggets were a fun group to watch before and after Carmelo Anthony departed to New York, along with Chauncey Billups.
In both cases, Denver was a free-and-loose team that liked to run-and-gun with attitude and an edge. Few players better embody that style than J.R. Smith.
The jury is still out as to whether Denver's super-platoon approach will net them more success than the "Carmelo Anthony Show." Until we see the new Nuggets through a full regular season, it will be hard to judge this year's middling playoff results with any real perspective.
One thing is clear, this group is going to put up some points and win a lot of games. Their "attack from all angles" strategy works because they've got energy players, difference makers and superlative depth at every position. Plus, practically everyone can shoot, and absolutely everybody can get out and run.
Still, one has to wonder whether they'll be able to concentrate their diverse firepower enough over the course of a seven game series.
In addition to all the depth, the Denver Nuggets will need to develop some "lead" players, even if they don't necessarily have top-tier superstars.
Nene Hilario is the Nuggets' first hope; he is clearly the franchise cornerstone at this point.
On the other hand, Danillo Gallinari and Ty Lawson have shown the abilities to eventually be All-Star caliber players as well.
Yet, as he is in so many regards, J.R. Smith is the wild card.
He may be a star, or he may end up being nothing more than a super-sub. His contributions may be worth the raise that awaits him or the money might be better spent elsewhere.
The Nuggets have some difficult decisions when it comes to J.R. Smith this offseason. "To sign or not to sign," that is the question. Here are 10 key factors they should consider...
To Sign: J.R. Smith's One of the Best 6th Men Around
Any solidly-built team brings a scorer or two off their bench.
Most teams have some three-point shooters, slashers and combo players stashed away as well.
Few NBA squads have all of those qualities embodied in one bench player.
Like Atlanta's Jamal Crawford, J.R. Smith is capable of 20 and 30-point scoring outbursts on any given night. Like Dallas' Jason Terry, Smith can bomb away from unlimited three-point range.
Like L.A.'s Lamar Odom, J.R. Smith is a versatile player; he can play both wing spots and even handle the ball a little. Like Memphis' O.J. Mayo, Smith can be a transition threat and a fearless finisher when attacking the basket.
I could go on an on, but you get the point.
A sixth man is suppose to provide offensive spark. J.R. Smith not only does that in multiple ways, but also just as successfully as any other NBA super-sub.
Not To Sign: How Long Until J.R. "Has" To Start?
J.R. Smith has only started 129 out of 503 possible career regular season games. That 26 percent rate drops to a measly 13 percent during his time with the Denver Nuggets, as he's only started 48 out of 372 games there.
Bringing J.R. Smith off the bench has been a logical, (and easily defensible), move up to this point: He was a young kid whose game and demeanor needed to mature. He could provide a huge lift for the second unit but was too turnover-prone and shot-happy to be effective for long stretches.
He could be pacified when playing behind the likes of Voshon Lenard, Allen Iverson and Dahntay Jones: he was simply paying his dues behind veteran players until the time was right.
However, that rationale may be running out of time.
J.R. Smith has matured enough as both a basketball player and a person now, and he may be looking for a bigger role. There are no longer veteran wings ahead of him on the roster. Yet, Denver's depth chart is crowded with younger wings like Arron Afflalo, Ty Lawson (playing out of position), Wilson Chandler and Danillo Gallinari, all of whom have all been given starts over J.R. Smith.
How much longer will he willingly accept such a bench role? If Denver hasn't started him to this point, when will they? Could he become a distraction if he stays?
What if some other team comes along, offering big money and a starting spot? If the Nuggets see Smith as a bench player, is he worth matching the bigger outside offers?
To Sign: J.R. Is a Great Roster Fit in Denver
The Denver Nuggets seem to have an option for everything.
They have solid and steady contributors, like Kenyon Martin, Raymond Felton, Arron Afflalo and Wilson Chandler at every position.
They have some players, like Danillo Gallinari and Al Harrington, who are capable of scoring in bunches during any game, (even if they don't always do that in every game).
They have potential stars, like Nene Hilario and Ty Lawson, whose games are multifaceted enough to bring something different to the table every night.
Finally, they have guys, like Chris "Birdman" Anderson and Gary Forbes, whose constant energy and mere appearance in a game are enough to fire up the crowd and spark the team.
J.R. Smith is the one player on the Nuggets' roster who fits into every single one of those categories.
Not To Sign: Is J.R. Smith Really Worth the Pay Raise?
Jamal Crawford is currently playing on a $10.8 million deal. Jason Terry makes $9.9 million per year. Lamar Odom "only" earns $8.2 million a season, but that's because he recently took a pay cut to stay with the Los Angeles Lakers.
J.R. Smith's expiring contract is for $6.8 million per year.
Now, unlike those three gentlemen, J.R. Smith has yet to earn a Sixth Man of the Year Award. Nor has he had a defining season that made him a runner-up.
Yet, his agent will surely point to the fact that J.R. Smith's impact off the Denver Nuggets' bench is similar to the league's other key super-subs. What's more, he's by far the youngest of the group: his ceiling is much higher when one considers that he's already in the conversation.
Finally, J.R. Smith may still have the potential to become a full-time starter and even an NBA star.
The point is, either way, J.R. Smith is going to be expecting a raise this offseason.
Establishing J.R. Smith's value is difficult. There are a lot of variables. For all of his offensive talents, he's a middling defender at best: the ability is there, but the concentration isn't always evident enough. Questions remain as to whether J.R. Smith is going to be an everyday starter soon or just a very valuable bench player.
If J.R. Smith is expecting Lamar Odom money, a raise may seem plausible to Denver management. But what happens if somebody else offers him Jason Terry or Jamal Crawford money?
To Sign: Denver Loves J.R. Smith
Yes, there will undoubtedly be a few Denver fans who may be ready to see J.R. Smith walk.
But you can't tell me the crowd isn't ready to cheer for this guy the minute he checks into the game.
Similar to the "Birdman Effect," as soon as J.R. Smith is on the floor, the amps and decibels power up in the Pepsi Center.
As soon as Smith makes a big three-pointer or throws down a thunderous dunk, the roof absolutely gets blown off the gym.
One can't underestimate the value of having a player who connects with the crowd on this level.
Denver has two of them.
Not only do crowd-pleasers like Chris Anderson and J.R. Smith contribute through their hustle plays and athletic feats, but they are also the ignition keys to the "13th Man." Getting the home crowd fired up snowballs momentum beyond the moment.
If you've ever seen the Nuggets play in Denver, then you know exactly what I'm talking about.
Not To Sign: J.R. Can Be a Coaching Headache
"Furious George" Karl has certainly softened in his old age.
Experience, heart-felt requests to "lighten up" from his Nuggets' players and a perspective-giving bout with cancer have changed George Karl's demanding nature over the past few seasons. While his standards remain just as high, he's earned a much more approachable and universally liked reputation from his players and peers.
That Karl oftentimes clashed with J.R. Smith in the past is hardly surprising at all.
Smith had been run out of town by the frustrated New Orleans Hornets: they had granted the preps-to-pro a starting job during his rookie season, only to see the 20-year-old then piss things away the following year with sloppy play and personal problems off the court.
J.R. Smith's brash nature and immature attitude were often at odds with George Karl's quick temper. In fact, it appeared that the two were often locked in a battle of wills, one that mirrored similar coach/player tiffs involving Carmelo Anthony, Kenyon Martin and others.
Chemistry has noticeably improved as Karl lightened up and players finally bought into his message.
Still, J.R. Smith's past continues to hover over him. Shot-selection and decision making have improved, but at times, are still utterly questionable at best. Because Smith occasionally still flashes glimpses of his early immaturity, this sometimes worries coaches, management and Denver fans that the potential for regression remains.
To Sign: Denver Needs J.R. Smith's Swagger & Scoring
All five of J.R. Smith's Denver seasons have resulted in playoff appearances.
Smith was oftentimes the main auxiliary scorer when alongside Carmelo Anthony and the primary option when Anthony was on the bench.
J.R. Smith has never been afraid of the big shot, nor has he ever had a problem with shooting a bunch of them.
Denver has mid-range shooters, slashers, finishers and three-point threats. As stated before, the Nuggets have a dozen players who contribute in a meaningful way on this current roster. Yet, they're still working out the offensive hierarchy, especially at the end of games.
J.R. Smith is one of the few players capable of both creating his own shots and playing off the ball. His experience, versatility and ability give him plenty of confidence with little offensive conscience.
Every team needs somebody like that, and the Denver Nuggets have it with J.R. Smith.
Not to Sign: Would the Money Be Spent Better Elsewhere?
J.R. Smith is not the only course on Denver's plate right now.
The problem is, the Nuggets also have to try and re-sign Arron Afflalo and Wilson Chandler this offseason, while trying to figure out whether they want to retain Kenyon Martin. They'll undoubtedly also have to match an offer for restricted free agent, Nene Hilario.
Nene is seen as a cornerstone to the franchise. He'll be paid handsomely to stay.
Even if Kenyon Martin does return, it will be for a fraction of his previous $16.5 million contract. Yet, how much of a raise will Afflalo and Chandler then be after?
If Denver tries to re-sign all of their players, they may be able to break even on their current payroll (again, because of the decrease in Martin's contract). However, they were already in luxury tax territory, paying dollar-for-dollar by crossing the cap limit.
This means that Denver can afford to re-sign their own players, if also willing to pony up the luxury tax penalties Yet, they won't be able to bring in free agents, unless they are minimum salary or mid-level exception contracts.
Is re-signing J.R. Smith worth potentially losing out on other key Nuggets, crossing further into the luxury tax or hamstringing Denver's ability to pursue free agents?
To Sign: J.R. Smith's Best Days Are Ahead of Him
Having been drafted straight out of high school in 2004, J.R. Smith is still only 25 years old. Yet, he's also now a seven-year NBA veteran.
Few potential stars have that much experience, along with so many potential prime years left.
What's more, J.R. Smith has improved all five years that he's spent in Denver. His field goal percentage did drop slightly this year, and his scoring dipped from 15 points to 12 points per game. Yet, there is a direct correlation to the fact that he also played three fewer minutes and took four fewer shots per contest.
Despite playing a little less in such a crowded backcourt, his three-point shooting percentage actually jumped from 34 to 39 percent, while his rebounding numbers INCREASED, his steals stayed the same and his turnovers dropped.
The stats reinforce what you could tell by watching J.R. during the year: his game is maturing and becoming more efficient, even as he remains one of the most peerless athletes in the league.
As his focus, effort and maturity continue to improve, J.R. Smith could potentially become a 20-plus points per game scorer on a nightly basis. The sky remains the limit for the high-flying sharp shooter.
Not To Sign: There Are Other Options out There
The Denver Nuggets' backcourt has five players who could legitimately start. Ty Lawson, Arron Afflalo, Wilson Chandler, Raymond Felton and J.R. Smith have all played major minutes since the Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups trade.
It appears that Denver views Lawson and Afflalo as their backcourt of the future; those two started the greatest percentage of possible games this last season.
Raymond Felton is clearly the backup point guard, but he also played key minutes with Lawson down the stretch. Wilson Chandler is more of a small forward but also played as a shooting guard, depending on the situation.
Despite being the team's spark plug, J.R. Smith only played 25 minutes per game during the regular season. That number dipped considerably to just 15 minutes per contest during the playoffs.
If Smith is going to be the fourth or fifth option in the guard rotation, then there may be cheaper unrestricted options out there, depending on what the Nuggets are looking for. There are shooters like Michael Redd and Mike Dunleavy, scorers like Marcus Thornton and Von Wafer and defensive specialists like DeShawn Stevenson and Maurice Evans.
Although unlikely, if the Nuggets are suddenly looking to supplant Arron Afflalo as the starting two guard, they may choose to use J.R. Smith and part of Kenyon Martin's money to "upgrade" with proven commodities like Anthony Parker, Jason Richardson or even Jamal Crawford.
Point is, Denver has quite a few reasonable options above, below and at J.R. Smith's price point. Their hands are in no way tied when building the roster for next season.
Despite the fact that legitimate questions remain about J.R. Smith's development and potential, despite the fact that there are other reasonable options out there and despite the fact that he is going to need a raise to stay, he needs to be re-signed by the Denver Nuggets.
J.R. Smith has too high of a ceiling, means too much as a spark plug and crowd-pleaser and is the one Nuggets player capable of single-handedly swinging games with his explosive shooting and finishing. Keeping J.R. Smith provides the Denver Nuggets with a lot of attractive options.
While Smith's ability to provide a second unit punch may keep him behind Arron Afflalo on the depth chart, it's certainly conceivable to see him playing near-starters' minutes soon, even from the bench.
Yet, even though he may not be the starting shooting guard today, that doesn't mean J.R. Smith isn't capable of winning the job. In fact, the opportunity is a better one than people think.
Arron Afflalo is as solid a player as they come. Yet, it's difficult to see him making more than one All-Star team in his career at best; his ceiling simply isn't as high as Smith's.
Raymond Felton and Ty Lawson are an effective pairing for short stretches, but there's no way the double point guard alignment can last for the long term. Finally, Wilson Chandler battles at both ends of the floor, but he's unlikely to be more than a valuable role player, and he's more a natural forward anyways.
Regardless of whether J.R. Smith becomes a starter or not, he needs to be a part of their equation going forward. They need a full training camp to develop this huge nucleus for their super-platoon approach.
This team is too young, talented and full of potential to bail out on any of the key parts now. Their depth and development potential is too exciting a prospect to mess with.
Yes, they'll eventually need to pare down their rotation, if and when they get closer to legit title contention. However, signing J.R. Smith keeps their options open while providing them with explosiveness that is otherwise largely missing from the roster.
Yes, it's going to cost a bit more money to keep him, but unless somebody else offers a ridiculous contract, his price tag should still be more attractive than players with similar upside or accomplishments.
Best case scenario in keeping J.R. Smith is that he develops into an All-Star caliber player. He certainly has the talent do so.
A realistic scenario is to see J.R. Smith win a couple Sixth Man of the Year awards. With a few more minutes per game, this is within the immediate realm of possibility.
Worst case scenario would see him chafe under remaining a role player. At that point, he becomes a reasonably priced trade asset for the Nuggets to address other needs.
In any case, the Denver Nuggets are better off with J.R. Smith next year than they are without him.