Two Years After Saving Cavs in NBA Finals, Does Anyone Want JR Smith?

Greg Swartz@@CavsGregBRCleveland Cavaliers Lead WriterNovember 30, 2018

CLEVELAND, OH - JUNE 22:  J.R. Smith #5 of the Cleveland Cavaliers shakes hands with the fans during the Cleveland Cavaliers Victory Parade And Rally on June 22, 2016 in downtown Cleveland, Ohio.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2016 NBAE  (Photo by David Liam Kyle/NBAE/Getty Images)
David Liam Kyle/Getty Images

CLEVELAND — JR Smith's locker, a place where some incredible conversation (and the occasional Coors Light) could be found for the past four years, now sits empty. The new pull-out tinted glass doors do their best to hide a black eye on what was once one of the great redemption stories in the NBA.

Smith is still technically a member of the Cleveland Cavaliers, only in the sense he's still collecting checks as he watches the team from afar. A buyout is possible, but both parties seem to prefer a trade after Smith lit the front office on fire with his comments following a 2-13 start to the season.

"I don't think the goal is to win. The goal isn't to go out there and try to get as many wins as you can," Smith told Jason Lloyd of The Athletic just before his banishment. "I think the goal is to develop and lose to get lottery picks. I think that was always the plan."

Later that day, the Cavaliers announced that Smith would "no longer be with team as the organization works with JR and his representation regarding his future."

This is a far cry from just over two years ago, when Smith saved the Cavaliers in Game 7 with some big three-pointers as the team's starting shooting guard before spending the rest of the summer shirtless and celebrating a championship.

LeBron James once labeled Smith the "most-liked guy on the team," while former head coach Tyronn Lue referred to him as the Cavs' best perimeter defender. A four-year, $57 million contract followed that 2016 championship, one that helped erase previous memories and mishaps of Smith's earlier NBA career.

Now 33 and away from the league for the first time in 15 years, how did Smith's Cavs tenure fall apart so fast, and how does he fit in the league today?


How We Got Here

Going from Finals hero to castoff on the NBA's worst team didn't happen overnight.

Injuries and declining play the past two years all culminated in Game 1 of the 2018 Finals, when Smith dribbled out the remaining seconds instead of putting up a shot that could have given the Cavs a 1-0 series lead. That part is well-documented.

Smith's time in Cleveland was naturally going to coincide with that of James and the partnership the two had formed. Being around James in a championship environment was the support that Smith needed to thrive after years on disappointing New York Knicks teams.

Former general manager David Griffin had to first get James' blessing on a trade for Smith in January 2015, when the Knicks were insistent he be packaged with Iman Shumpert.

"Get him here, and I'll take care of it," James told Griffin at the time, per ESPN's Brian Windhorst.

Now with James gone, it only made sense that Smith's time would be coming to an end as well. That it happened this quickly is more of the Cavaliers' fault than Smith's, however.

As the Cavs began their roster turnover this summer, Smith was notified that playing time could be limited. What followed was a back-and-forth dance over the season's first several weeks that included Smith's benching in favor of Rodney Hood, removal from the rotation altogether, insertion back in the rotation, removal from the rotation again with permission to leave the team, a trade request from Smith, a reinsertion into the rotation, and even four games as a member of the starting unit before once again being pushed away.

This has all been a marvelous display of dysfunction from a now-4-16 Cavs team that has just one healthy player (Tristan Thompson) remaining in its rotation from the 2016 championship squad.

"It's part of the NBA," Thompson told Bleacher Report when asked about Smith's exile.

"T-Lue always told us to cherish those kinds of moments. Cherish those moments with these guys you share the locker room with, because there's no guarantee they'll be around the following year or the years after. So for us to be together for four years says a lot. It says a lot about how good of a player Swish has been for us. How much he meant to this organization.

"You're going to lose some of your brothers. It's part of the game. Swish has done a lot for this city, and he's been the people's champ. He should hold his head up high, and I think the city of Cleveland has embraced him like he's from the Land."

CLEVELAND, OH - APRIL 29: Tristan Thompson #13 and JR Smith #5 of the Cleveland Cavaliers exchange high fives in Game Seven of Round One of the 2018 NBA Playoffs against the Indiana Pacers on April 29, 2018 at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio.  NOTE
Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

At 27, Thompson still has a place on a rebuilding Cavs team. Kevin Love, 30, will once again become the offensive focal point when he returns from toe surgery in January—at least, if the Cavs haven't found a trade partner for him by then.

Kyle Korver is now on the Utah Jazz, as the team's backcourt will primarily feature rookie Collin Sexton (19), Hood (26), Jordan Clarkson (26) and now Alec Burks (27). George Hill (32) becomes a major trade candidate for Cleveland, along with Smith.


What's Next for JR?

The Cavaliers have three options: They can find a trade partner, negotiate a buyout on the roughly $15 million in guaranteed money Smith has on his contract through 2020, or reach some sort of reconciliation and bring him back.

Two of these don't seem realistic.

"I don't want my legacy to be remembered like that in Cleveland," Smith said of a buyout, per Lloyd. "I don't think that's fair to the people I see every single day walking around the arena. I don't think that's fair to the trainers or equipment guys. … I just look at it differently than being traded. I don't like the statement of getting bought out."

While the equipment guys may or may not care about how Smith's career in Cleveland comes to an end, a buyout would likely mean giving back at least a little bit of money, something he doesn't seem willing to do.

This leaves a trade as the most likely option.

Smith is owed just over $14.7 million this season and $15.7 million next year, although only $3.9 million is guaranteed for next season. For teams looking to shed salary for the huge 2019 free-agent class, Smith could be dealt for someone on a roughly equal $15 million salary and then waived so his new team could save over $11 million in cap space.

This may be where Smith's primary value lies. His days as a starting shooting guard are likely over.

"They may be stuck with him until the trade deadline and hope that someone is desperate for shooting help off the bench," one NBA scout told Bleacher Report.

"I don't see them getting much for him. Locker room fit is a big concern. He's a bench player for me, but every team is different depending on makeup of their roster. If a good playoff team has a weak bench, they may want him to come in and just shoot. I just feel he's a tough player to trust with meaningful minutes."

BOSTON, MA - MAY 13: JR Smith #5 of the Cleveland Cavaliers reacts from the bench late in the fourth quarter in his teams loss to the Boston Celtics in Game One of the Eastern Conference Finals of the 2018 NBA Playoffs at TD Garden on May 13, 2018 in Bost
Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Like his situation in Cleveland, Smith is best suited to play on a team with championship aspirations in a locker room with strong veteran presences. He doesn't need to be babysat, but rather properly motivated to reach his full potential.

Teams like the New Orleans Pelicans, Memphis Grizzlies and Detroit Pistons could all use wing help, as could James' Lakers.

The Houston Rockets, just 9-11 and next to last in the Western Conference, seem like a team desperate for a roster shakeup as well. Per Kelly Iko of The Athletic: "Another situation Houston is monitoring is the one playing out in Cleveland, sources said. The Cavaliers are aggressive in the market, looking to move some of their veterans. They have made it clear that they are moving in a younger direction, recently parting ways with JR Smith as they seek a trade for him."

Teams looking to trade for Smith will likely have to send back a bad contract to match salaries, possibly with draft compensation if the deal goes on for multiple years. As rough of a season as Smith has endured (6.7 points, 30.8 three-point percentage), his contract does carry value next summer.

In the end, Smith's time with the Cavs should be viewed primarily as a success. His 255 total games were the most of any stop in his career outside of the Denver Nuggets, and his 79 playoff contests easily bested the 51 other total games he appeared in over his 15 years.

Look for Smith to eventually end up on a contender's benchand for what's become an incredibly messy situation to finally be resolved.


Greg Swartz covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter.