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Is J.R. Smith really worth $15 million per year?

Recently there has been some discussion about whether Smith deserves to be paid this much money. As is often the case, the answer depends on which angle you view it from.

NBA: Finals-Cleveland Cavaliers at Golden State Warriors Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

The argument in favor of J.R. Smith

One key point in his favor is that Smith knows his role, and excels in it.

In 2012-13 he scored 18.1 points per game for the New York Knicks en route to winning the Sixth Man of the Year award. He took 65 percent of his shots inside the arc, and 83 percent of his two pointers were unassisted. His job was to be a gunner off the bench, and he was very good at it.

In Cleveland, however, his role would be very different. At the time of the trade many worried that he would take too many shots outside the flow of the offense, shots that Kyrie Irving or LeBron James should be taking instead.

Fast forward a year and a half and we can state with certainty that Smith has embraced his new role as a starting 3&D wing. He’s proven to be one of the best high volume shooters in the league, breaking the Cavaliers single season record for made three pointers during 2015-16.

Moreover, his effort on the defensive end has improved greatly, to the point where Coach Tyronn Lue said, “He's become our best defensive player this year.” Personally I think that both LeBron and Tristan Thompson were better defenders over the course of the season, but it still speaks volumes about Smith’s attitude that his head coach was willing to say this.

Consider what contracts other 3&D perimeter players have received this summer:

  • Harrison Barnes, four years and $94 million ($23.5 million AAV).
  • Allen Crabbe, four years and $75 million ($18.8 million AAV).
  • Kent Bazemore, four years and $70 million ($17.5 million AAV).
  • Courtney Lee, four years and $48 million ($12 million AAV).
  • Matthew Dellavedova, four years and $38.4 million ($9.6 million AAV).
  • Gerald Henderson, two years and $18 million ($9 million AAV).

None of these guys are a perfect match for Smith’s age and skill set, but it gives us an idea of what he deserves in the current market. It’s worth noting that he’s a much more proven outside shooter than any of the players listed above, with more career makes than all six of them combined (1,679 to 1,674).

Smith often doesn’t receive the recognition he deserves for his shooting. He’s never been invited to participate in the three point contest during All-Star weekend. Yet, he’s made more three pointers through his age 30 season than any other player in NBA history save one: Ray Allen.

Replacing a player as skilled as Smith would be tough even if the Cavaliers had plenty of cap space. But replacing him with a veteran minimum contract would simply be impossible. The Cavaliers need to keep him, just as they needed to keep Tristan Thompson last summer. The difference is that Smith is an unrestricted free agent, and while he wants return to Cleveland he doesn’t have to give the Cavs an opportunity to match a deal offered by another team.

The argument against J.R. Smith

While it’s difficult to dispute that Smith’s play on the court is worth $15 million per year, that doesn’t mean any team is willing to pay him that amount. Most of the available cap space was spent within the first few days of free agency. Further, this is the second year in a row that Smith has failed to draw significant interest from teams outside Cleveland.

These are the teams that currently could offer Smith a deal worth $15 million annually:

  • Boston Celtics, $15.8 million of cap space.
  • Brooklyn Nets, $18.8 million of cap space.
  • Denver Nuggets, $25.3 million of cap space.
  • Miami Heat, $21.0 million of cap space.
  • Minnesota Timberwolves, $25.5 million of cap space.
  • Oklahoma City Thunder, $22.0 million of cap space.
  • Philadelphia 76ers, $29.7 million of cap space.
  • Phoenix Suns, $26.2 million of cap space.
  • Utah Jazz, $16.8 million of cap space.

Of these teams, I would disqualify Brooklyn, Denver, Minnesota, Philadelphia and Phoenix because Smith has little value to a rebuilding team. Oklahoma City just acquired a talented young shooting guard and may want to keep some cap space available so they can offer Russell Westbrook a restructured contract worth an extra $9 million or so this season in order to keep him long term. Utah, likewise, might wish to restructure Derrick Favors’ contract and already has a talented young SG on the roster.

That leaves Miami. I’m not sure Smith really wants to be Dwyane Wade’s replacement, but the fit would actually be pretty good. They want to compete now, have a big hole at SG, and desperately need some shooting. But with Chris Bosh’s health very uncertain and a very thin bench it’s possible that Miami won’t be a playoff team next year.

Simply put, the teams that Smith would’ve fit well on have already used their cap space. If other teams are only offering $10 million or $12 million a year, then the Cavs will no doubt be reluctant to pay $15 million.

Is Smith worth $15 million per year? His performance says yes. The market says no. Both sides of the negotiation have a measure of leverage. It’s likely they will work out a fair deal for both sides eventually. When will it happen? Your guess is as good as mine.