Signing J.R. Smith Makes Sense in Cavaliers' Wild Free-Agency World

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistJuly 20, 2015

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The normal conventions of NBA free agency make J.R. Smith's potential return to the Cleveland Cavaliers seem completely crazy.

But the Cavs' recent behavior suggests they're perfectly happy operating outside those conventions, which makes re-signing Smith—though costly, seemingly unnecessary and perhaps even a little nuts—somehow logical.

Cleveland Spending

CLEVELAND, OH - APRIL 21:  Kevin Love #0 of the Cleveland Cavaliers warms up before Game Two of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals against the Boston Celtics during the 2015 NBA Playoffs on April 21, 2015 at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio. NOTE
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Cleveland is flinging around cash, handing Kevin Love $110 million, plopping $40 million in Iman Shumpert's lap and doling out $47 million to LeBron James this offseason. And that's all on top of Kyrie Irving's max deal, Tristan Thompson's impending contract (which was originally reported to be for $80 million over five years) and whatever it takes to shore up the rest of the roster.

The financial details are mind-numbing, but ESPN.com's Michael Schwartz simplifies the picture: 

If Thompson signs a five-year, $80 million deal, Smith comes back for $6 million, [Matthew] Dellavedova signs for $5 million and the Cavs do not take the [Brendan] Haywood cap savings for themselves but instead trade his deal for another $10.5M player, the team's payroll would swell to about $124 million. By virtue of being almost $40 million over the tax line, the Cavs would pay a tax over $131 million for a total expenditure of $255 million of Dan Gilbert's hard-earned dollars.

A quarter-of-a-billion dollars. For one year.

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Spending like that shows the Cavs are flouting payroll norms to a ridiculous degree.

But James' presence changes the roster-building paradigm. As long as he's in his prime, the Cavaliers' title window is open. And because there's no guarantee as to how long that prime will last, Cleveland is doing whatever it can to capitalize.

And if "whatever it can" includes just a modest raise for Smith, the massive tax penalties get even more punitive.

But that's where things get even stranger. Smith, though he'll be extremely expensive because of the tax implications, might have to re-sign with the Cavs at a discount.

Misjudged Market

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Smith opted out of the final year of his deal with the Cavaliers, which would have paid him $6.4 million. Clearly, Smith believed he could do better than that.

He couldn't.

Asked if he regretted his decision to decline his contract option, Smith told Joe Vardon of the Northeast Ohio Media Group. "Uh, I mean, yes and no."

"No because I've gotten offers that I wanted, I mean numbers that I wanted, it's just different situations," Smith said. "Right now it's just a matter of seeing what the Cavs come back to me with. Right now they give me the best opportunity to win."

And now he's facing the possibility of a salary reduction in an age when Reggie Jackson just signed a deal for $80 million, and the Oklahoma City Thunder didn't even blink before matching a $70 million offer sheet for Enes Kanter.

NBA teams were champing at the bit to spend this offseason, and Smith couldn't attract a dime on the open market.

We'll chalk that up as a miscalculation on his part, as former NBA executive Bobby Marks noted:

Bobby Marks @BobbyMarks42

The JR Smith situation is a case study for all future players with options. Never opt out of a contract without a deal in your back pocket.

Smith's predicament is complicated. He's obviously worth more than nothing, so his inability to draw serious interest has more to do with his reputation than his production.

New York Knicks president Phil Jackson explained his reasons for dealing Smith to the Cavs in a conversation with ESPN.com's Charley Rosen:

J.R. had been exhibiting some delinquent behavior and had gotten into the habit of coming late to team meetings, or missing them altogether. ... I also said that because of his unacceptable behavior, he had two strikes against him with this team. He didn't really respond. He's a very sensitive guy, with his big doe eyes. He looked like he was going to tear up. But he finally responded that he was going through some issues with his gal.

Smith managed to stay out of trouble off the court in Cleveland, and there were no reports of missed meetings. But he earned a two-game suspension in the playoffs for drilling Jae Crowder in the face.

The old J.R. was still in there somewhere.

Despite Smith's history of bad shots and bad behavior, the Cavs, incredibly, still kind of need him.

Even more remarkably, they want him.

The Mandate

Seth Wenig/Associated Press

Well, the guy who truly matters in Cleveland wants him, which is all that counts.

"We still got to re-sign Tristan [Thompson]. Hopefully we can bring back J.R. [Smith] as well and see if there's some other free agents out there that'd love to come here and play if we're able to do that," James told reporters.

This isn't just James stumping for a teammate out of politeness. This is a superstar trying to convince his front office to keep one of the guys who legitimately helped on the road to the Finals.

Smith, though disruptive and generally not the kind of personality a championship-chasing team would want, actually shaped up in Cleveland. He played better too, bumping up his scoring efficiency and hitting an excellent 39 percent of his three-point shots after joining the Cavs.

That production, if sustainable, isn't something the Cavs can replace on the market. They're capped out beyond belief, which means the only way to get a player of Smith's caliber is to keep the one they already have. Cleveland can exceed the cap to retain Smith because it has his Bird rights.

The tax hit will be immense. But at this point, what's another few million dollars?

The Sense of Nonsense

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We're talking about a player who was cast off by the Knicks, who has a long history of misbehavior and who will cost his team an exorbitant amount of cash to keep.

And somehow the smartest move is to keep him anyway.

The rules are out the window here.

Which, since we're dealing with the notorious rule-breaking Smith, actually makes sense.

Free-agent signing info courtesy of ESPN.com's free-agency tracker.


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