J.R. Smith was given a healthy serving of humble pie last offseason, when he opted out of his final year with the Cleveland Cavaliers, leaving $6 million on the table to become a free agent.
NBA free agency saw massive amounts of dollars pour into players’ coffers.
But J.R. Smith’s phone didn’t ring. He waited. Waited. And Waited some more. It became clear. Other teams didn’t want a shooter carrying a malcontent reputation and who treated defense only as a rumor.
The summer passed, and Smith basically had no options. ESPN writer Brian WIndhorst said Smith was humbled by teams turning their back on Smith, who was coming off probably the best two-month stretch in his career–although he played horribly against the Warriors in the 2015 NBA Finals.
“I know that that was really a sobering moment to him,” Windhorst said on his “Hey, Windy!” podcast, available at ESPNCleveland.com.
“He’s 30 years old…he was hoping for a four-year deal and a pretty good number. Basically, the kind of contract Shumpert got. I mean, J.R. Smith has not made a lot of money in his career. Relative to you and me, he’s done quite well. But he’s never had a contract that has been valued at over $20 million…”
The Cavs gave Iman Shumpert a four-year, $40 million contract. It was thought to be a lot of money, but considering how much NBA salary caps are expected to rise, the pact could be viewed as bargain in the future. Cleveland would have a premier athletic wing defender for the remainder of LeBron James‘ prime.
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Smith, the 3-point shooter with the bad reputation returned to Cleveland for $5.3 million–basically the equivalent of the mid-level exception–and according to Windhorst, Dan Gilbert didn’t even have to pay him that much, but the Cavs wanted to try and make Smith whole after he made the bad decision to opt out.
Smith is still playing for the security of a long-term contract, and it’s showed this season, especially in the playoffs.
His 3-point ability is perfect for this Cavs team–a team that will live and die by how many deep balls it can connect on.
Smith’s effort level on defense is what’s surprising many of his critics. He’s been too good defensively that if you knew nothing about Smith and Shumpert’s history, you would guess that it was Smith who was given the $40 million contract last summer.
Smith, 30, is playing 33 1/2 minutes per game this postseason, almost getting twice as much floor time as Shump. Shumpert has been a huge disappointment this season, but he’s only 25. Perhaps he can redeem himself in the Finals, or perhaps next season.
“The Cavs gave Shumpert $40 million to be the starting shooting guard. They wanted him to defend. and J.R. Smith has been the better player, front to back,” Windhorst said.
Look for Smith to continue to contribute in the Finals, because he’s enjoying the ride. Last season’s Finals left a bad taste in a lot of people’s mouths, and with his financial future at stake, J.R. seems ready and willing to show potential employers that he’s a changed man.