For free agents seeking big money during the off-season, having to wait until the dust settles usually isn’t a good sign. Dion Waiters, for example—who was reportedly eyeing a “very lucrative” contract with the Philadelphia 76ers on the horizon back in November—ultimately signed with the Miami Heat on a modest two-year, $6 million deal.
While that may not be a harbinger of what’s to come for newly crowned NBA champion J.R. Smith, it seems unlikely the veteran shooting guard will get the $15 million per year figure he’s reportedly seeking.
With the bulk of free agents already signed on for next season, there isn’t much cap space left to go around. That’s the primary reason why Smith’s $15 million mark looks like a pipedream, but exactly how much value does Smith provide for the Cleveland Cavaliers?
Spreading the Floor
In the 2016 playoffs, the Cavaliers morphed into a terrifyingly efficient three-point shooting machine. Timofey Mozgov was banished to the bench, head coach Tyronn Lue leaned on more small-ball lineups to emphasize spreading the floor and shooting the three-ball, and his players responded by finding their collective shooting stroke.
Smith was part of that movement, as he drained a scorching-hot 43% of his triples throughout the postseason compared to 40% during the regular season. Smith was unleashing more treys per game in the playoffs as well, and his unconscious shooting provided a lot of uplift for the trigger-happy Cavs.
And while Smith is a reliable outside shooter who can catch fire and swing the outcome of games by himself, he’s a bit of a one-trick pony on offense.
Nearly 64% of Smith’s shot attempts last season were three-pointers. Now, that shouldn’t necessarily count against the man otherwise known as “J.R. Swish,” provided he’s playing to his strengths. But with that being said, is he worth $15 million per year if he doesn’t bring other skills to the table?
In a completely unsurprising development, the Cavaliers were a superior offensive team last season when Smith was out on the court knocking down threes.
Cleveland scored nearly six additional points per 100 possessions with Smith playing. That’s far from insignificant, even though Smith played the vast majority of his minutes with LeBron James and Kyrie Irving.
The scoring boost he provides is great, but Smith doesn’t fall under the umbrella of the coveted “three-and-D” wing players because he doesn’t defend well.
Cavs’ opponents scored more points more efficiently when Smith was on the court defending. That tidbit essentially makes his net rating a wash. Add in the fact that Smith has finished with a negative defensive box plus-minus in each of the past four seasons, and the sharpshooter doesn’t exactly instill confidence in his coaches on the less glamorous end of the court.
Given that Smith also doesn’t create shot opportunities for teammates—his assist percentage actually hit a career-low 8.5% last season—nor chip in much in the rebounding department, it’s tough to justify such a hefty salary figure.
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The Money Market
So, as a steady three-point marksman who isn’t a lockdown defender or playmaker, does Smith deserve the lofty figure he’s seeking from the Cavs? If you’re his agent, you should simply point to Timofey Mozgov’s four-year, $64 million deal as a barometer and call it a day. Unfortunately for Smith, however, that’s not how free agency works. Some teams net bargains, while others overpay and get stuck with untradeable albatross contracts.
A more accurate representation of Smith’s value, relative to other contracts signed around the league this summer, includes Jeremy Lin (three years, $36 million), Courtney Lee (four years, $50 million) and Tyler Johnson (four years, $50 million). Those guys are netting approximately $12 million per year, which seems a fair ballpark for the one-dimensional Smith.
Of course, that fails to account for the fact that the majority of teams around the league have already filled up their available roster spots—leaving the Cavaliers with all the leverage during negotiations. The lack of demand could mean Smith will have to settle for a figure far below what he’s seeking for the second consecutive summer after opting out of his player option.
Sharing LeBron’s agent, Rich Paul, could provide Smith a saving grace of sorts, as it did for Tristan Thompson. But at the current impasse, it would be surprising to see Smith net the $15 million he’s shooting for even though he’s undoubtedly an impactful scorer.