Even as late as February of 2008 if there was one player that most Nuggets fans loved to hate it was J.R. Smith. He was a spoiled kid who had all the ability in the world, but that ability seemed to be wasted by a feeble mind. He was disliked because he made it easy to dislike him. He was embodied everything many fans dislike about the NBA. He never went to college, did not seem work hard, only cared about making threes and dunking when he was on the floor and then toss in the unnecessary tragic death of his best friend last summer and he had the complete package.
It was not just fans who were down on J.R. Despite all of his natural talent, his prototypical shooting guard size and athleticism and endless range the Hornets gave up on him after just two seasons when they traded him to the Bulls.
At the time John Hollinger proclaimed that the Nuggets acquisition of J.R. for such a pittance had the potential to be one of the great heists in NBA history.
However, when he first arrived in
Then, thanks to some bad luck, things started to turn around.
When both Anthony Carter and Chucky Atkins were injured before the 2007-2008 season started the Nuggets needed someone to play point guard for a few minutes a night. Mike Wilks proved to be a poor option and so George Karl turned to J.R. The results were not overly impressive, but Smith definitely took the job seriously and he began to look to set his teammates up. As a result his shot selection improved a great deal and J.R. started to think thoughts other than “must jack up long three pointer” when he had the ball in his hands.
Another positive development was his increased effort on defense. He still did not show the proper understanding of positioning and rotations, but his effort was noticeably better.
Anthony Carter returned in November and J.R. found himself back on the bench soon after. He would get 12 minutes here, DNP-Coach’s Decision there. Then on February 10th in
Two days later in Miami Smith hit eight more threes to help push the Nuggets to a one point OT win in
J.R. had arrived. After the
The most encouraging thing during that time is that he was not just a one dimensional player. He developed a pretty good pull up jumper from inside the three point line, he was amazing driving to the rim and finishing or dishing to an open teammate and his defense continued to improve. He even showed some comprehension of defensive rotations. I chronicled some of his impressive advances in the Pickaxe and Roll Film Room.
In a matter of a couple of months J.R. went from a frustrating player starring in the role of lightning rod for the anger of Nuggets fans everywhere to a potential franchise shooting guard. J.R. even won the 7th man award for the best player who averaged under 24 minutes a game from a panel of highly esteemed bloggers, which I am sure he cherishes.
J.R. went on to raise his game to an even higher level in the Nuggets abbreviated playoff appearance. He averaged 18.3 points a game, but saved his best performance for the elimination game where he scored 26 points on only 12 shots. In fact, J.R. has the third highest PER out of all shooting guards in the playoffs. Better than Manu Ginobili, Allen Iverson, Joe Johnson and Rip Hamilton.
That is all great news for the Nuggets except for the fact that on July 1st J.R. will be a restricted free agent. That means he needs to get an extension, which in turn means a higher price tag for Stan Kronke.
Now they will have to pay, but the question before us today is, how much?
Ben Gordon turned down a five year, 50 million dollar deal (which he will be very lucky to get this offseason). Jamaal Crawford makes around eight million dollars a year. Marquise Daniels makes around seven million a season. Devin Harris is going to be making between seven and eight million a year. Steven Jackson will make over seven million in 2008-2009.
Looking at those numbers, would anyone feel bad about giving J.R. a three year, 20 million dollar contract? He does not have the track record of any of those players, but would you be surprised if J.R. outperforms all of those guys next season? It is short enough that he can cash in on big deals two more times during his career, but it is enough money to set him up for a long time. Fortunately for
That is a risk I am not willing to accept.
The downside of signing J.R. to an extension is that it may mean saying goodbye to another rotation player. It is entirely possible that in order to afford paying J.R. Denver will have to let Eduardo Najera walk. I have gone on record of saying
I am sure many of you reading this still think J.R. is a chucker who needs to play for someone else. I will leave you all with one thought. John Hollinger has a system that takes a player’s physical qualities and statistical output and matches him with another player that his career is most likely to mirror.
The player most similar to J.R. Smith heading into last season (before he broke out during the second half of this season)…none other than Kobe Bryant.
He may never reach his full potential, and yes becoming Kobe Bryant may be a little bit pollyannaish, but at this point the Nuggets better be sure they are the team that J.R. either succeeds or fails with.