What is Going on with J.R. Smith?

That is the next big question of the offseason and one that I have been intending to write about for a few days.  There have been plenty of rumors and with the surfacing of yet another rumor of another team reportedly interested in acquiring his rights (thanks to micb for the FanPost) I figured I have procrastinated long enough. 

It is surprising how there has been almost no media coverage in Denver surrounding Smith’s status.  All of the news rumors have come from cities of teams who are dreaming of adding a player as talented as J.R. 

The Nuggets are predictably tight lipped about the negotiations (except to say they will match any offer sent J.R.’s way).  The only news we have heard has been rumors circulating from cities who would like to see J.R. join the local squad.  All of the rumors are predicated on two assumptions.  The first being the drafting of Sonny Weems and the signing of Dahntay Jones makes J.R. expendable.  The second assumption is that with the Nuggets in cost cutting mode they do not want to pay J.R.

I think there is some truth in both assumptions, but only to a degree.

Sonny Weems is physically similar to Smith, but his game is no where near the level of J.R.’s.  Weems has almost none of the offensive talents that J.R. already possesses and if you are looking to compare their potential, don’t bother.  You won’t be able to see Weems second floor ceiling from Smith’s penthouse.  Jones too is in the same ballpark as J.R. physically, but apart from his ability to drive would be another sorry offensive replacement for J.R.

Finding the money to pay J.R. is a completely different issue.  Unless you have been working in the backwoods of Kamchatka doing some research for an upcoming game of Risk I need not mention that the Nuggets are serious about staying under the luxury tax.  If you want to know why J.R. has not already been signed look no further than the ever present tax concerns.

Because of those reasons many people are speculating that the Nuggets will look to trade J.R.  I believe if Smith is sign and traded it will be a last resort for both the Nuggets and Smith.  If things get to that point I will be very surprised.  Smith is close to many of the Nuggets players and he provides the team with the outside shooting threat and talented two guard the Nuggets have been missing for years.

The Nuggets front office knows that Weems and Jones have but a fraction of the talent J.R. possesses.  There is no way they could rationally replace what he can do let alone what he may be able to do in the future.  The real problem with the Nuggets sign and trading J.R. is not only will it remove his talent from the team, but it will bring back salary that will put them over the luxury tax limit anyway.  If they are going to go over the tax why not just sign J.R.?

In fact, the Nuggets newfound fiscal responsibility seems to me to be a very good thing in this situation.  Many teams make the mistake of negotiating against themselves and paying out far more than necessary for a player in free agency or come extension time (i.e. Nene).  The Nuggets are not about to do that now that they are so desperate to avoid the luxury tax.  If the tax was of little concern you can be sure Smith would have his own six year, $60 million contract.

Many analysts have wondered why a team does not offer J.R. the full midlevel because they do not believe the Nuggets will match.  I think that would be the ideal situation for the Nuggets front office and they are hoping that a team does exactly that.  However, if a team was going to pull the trigger on J.R., I think they would have done so by now.

I foresee two potential endings to this saga.  One is for Smith to sign a Louis Williams type deal for a tad below the midlevel exception (or a shorter similar deal).  Williams was in a similar situation to J.R. as a restricted free agent who has played limited minutes, but shown a great deal of talent and potential that has yet to be realized.  The other likely resolution is for J.R. to sign the qualifying offer and become an unrestricted free agent after the season.

If those are J.R.’s options I would not be surprised to see him opt for the qualifying offer and take his chances next offseason when more teams will have cap room although a three year deal in the $15 to $18 million range would give J.R. some financial security in the short term and a chance to cash in again relatively soon on a monster deal as he enters his prime.  Such a deal would put the Nuggets about $5 million over the luxury tax level and would give them a good chance at getting at or near the tax threshold with a late season trade or two.

All that matters though is J.R. Smith eventually putting his Herbie Hancock on a contract to play for the Nuggets and until he does anything can happen.  Despite all the rumors I still feel pretty secure in the belief that J.R. Smith will be a Nugget and we will not be subjected to the Jones/Weems era yet.

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