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It’s been more than two months since JR Smith last suited up for an NBA game, sent away by the Cleveland Cavaliers as the team still has yet to make a decision on his future.
Smith and the Cavs clashed continuously this season, as his role fluctuated between starting shooting guard to out of the rotation completely. It was clear Smith and the team he helped win a championship were headed for divorce.
Smith, 33, must sit and wait while the Cavs field trade calls or look to negotiate a buyout on the remainder of his contract that runs into the summer of 2020. A trade to a contender would seem to be the best-case scenario for both parties, although his value is at an all-time low.
“[Cleveland] 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.”
In 11 games (four starts) for the Cavs this season, Smith put up 6.7 points and 1.9 assists while shooting 34.2 percent from the field and 30.8 percent from deep in his 20.2 minutes per game. His defense can still be good in spurts, but per usual, his focus can also be fleeting.
As the Feb. 7 trade deadline inches nearer, we should soon have an answer about what happens to Smith.
What Does JR Have Left?
At his best, Smith is an athletic 6’6″ shooting guard who can play both sides of the ball.
Given his age and deep playoff runs with Cleveland the past four seasons, this may now only be for short stretches of games. Working out on his own is one thing, but it will likely take Smith time after he does resume playing to get back into game shape.
His days of starting for a championship-caliber team, a role he played perfectly for the Cavaliers, are over.
“He’s a bench player for me,” the scout said. “If a good playoff team has a weak bench, they may want him to come off and shoot. I just feel he’s a tough player to trust with meaningful minutes. [Locker room fit] would be a big concern.”
Luckily for Smith, three-point shooting has become a necessary part of nearly every team’s offensive attack. He still has a quick release and converted a solid 37 percent of his catch-and-shoot threes this season compared to just 16.7 percent off the pull-up, per NBA.com. This should please any potential trade partners who already have a willing distributor in their backcourt.
Besides his mental lapse during Game 1 of the 2018 NBA Finals, Smith has typically elevated his performance during the playoffs.
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Over the past four years, Smith has played in 79 postseason contests (64 starts), averaging 10.2 points, 3.2 rebounds and 1.0 steals on 40.6 percent shooting from deep.
Former Cavs head coach Tyronn Lue often trusted Smith to defend the opponent’s best player, taking the burden away from LeBron James. Given his size, Smith can defend three positions and should be able to provide quality playoff minutes off a team’s bench.
His experience in a veteran-heavy locker room led by James the past four seasons should be of help as well.
What Should the Cavs Do with Smith?
Between orchestrating a trade and working with Klutch Sports to come to terms on a buyout, there remains an obvious choice.
Smith has value, even if it’s more for his contract than his play.
About half of Smith’s $14.7 million salary is still owed this season, and his deal for next year increases to $15.7 million. Of that, only $3.9 million is guaranteed if a team decides to waive him by the end of the league year on June 30. Doing so would save nearly $12 million in cap space right before the start of free agency, an enticing option for teams looking to land a star.
For this reason, buying Smith out and getting nothing in return would be foolish for Cleveland. With a loaded free-agent class headlined by Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, Kyrie Irving and others, saving $12 million would be a huge deal to some teams.
Given the June 30 deadline to waive Smith and save that money, the Cavs would have to trade him before the Feb. 7 trade deadline. Waiting until the new league year on July 1 would be too late, as Smith’s entire $15.7 million salary for 2019-20 would become fully guaranteed.
Because of Smith’s unique contract, and the commitment by majority owner Dan Gilbert to spend, Cleveland should try to leverage money to acquire talent. That means looking for players on teams that are more interested in cap space than what’s currently on their roster.
Teams that fit this description include the New York Knicks, L.A. Clippers and Dallas Mavericks.
New York has its sights set on Durant and could clear roughly $15 million by sending Tim Hardaway Jr. to the Cavaliers for Smith. According to Marc Stein of the New York Times, the Knicks have made both Hardaway and Courtney Lee available.
The Clippers and Mavericks could also be key free-agent destinations. Moving the contracts of Danilo Gallinari (owned $22.6 million in 2019-20) or Harrison Barnes ($25.1 million player option) would help each team open its books while sending a quality starter back to the Cavaliers.
What Teams Would Want JR?
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Other options remain that could want Smith as both a player and contract asset.
The Houston Rockets have expressed interest in Smith dating back to the summer, per The Athletic’s Shams Charania. With James Harden having one of the greatest offensive seasons in NBA history, Houston could use some wing help to lighten his incredible scoring burden. Playing on a team with championship aspirations should help Smith’s focus as well.
Teams like the Oklahoma City Thunder, New Orleans Pelicans and Milwaukee Bucks have “looked into wing help,” per Charania. The Cavs already executed a deal with Milwaukee this season, sending George Hill to the Bucks for John Henson, Matthew Dellavedova and draft picks.
The Indiana Pacers now have a hole at shooting guard following a season-ending knee injury to Victor Oladipo. Smith doesn’t come close to filling this void, of course, but he could take over Tyreke Evans’ role off the bench should Evans be moved to Oladipo’s spot in the starting lineup.
If Cleveland doesn’t mind taking on salary, shipping Smith off for a bad contract and a pick could be an option as well.
The Memphis Grizzlies have exiled Chandler Parsons, who’s still owed $25.1 million next season. Aggregating Smith’s salary with Alec Burks’ for Parsons and a draft pick would make sense for both sides.
Smith will likely find his way to a new team before the deadline, given his contract structure and the Cavs’ desire to get something back for him rather than just a buyout.
He may no longer be a starter on a championship team, but he could offer a contender 10 to 15 good minutes off the bench. His stay with the Cavaliers may be up, but there should still be time left in the NBA for JR Smith.