Who Would Give J.R. A Shot?
And then there were three.
When word came out that J.R. Smith was no longer a member in good standing of the Cleveland Cavaliers, that left just three members of the 2015-16 Championship team still wearing the Wine and Gold a mere two years later. The mercurial Smith, who had resuscitated a moribund career as a throw-in on a trade designed to bring Iman Shumpert to the Cavs, backslid out of the rotation, and ultimately out of town.
The final straw appears to be his interview with The Athletic, in which he rejected the Cavaliers' stated preseason goal of a competitive season: "I don't think the goal is to win. The goal isn't to go out there and try to get as many wins as you can. I think the goal is to develop and lose and get lottery picks. I think that was always the plan." Now the Cavs may not have thought the $14.7 million they were paying Smith in salary this year bought a good soldier, but being called tankers and liars in the same breath? That was a bridge too far.
So what would J.R. Smith bring back in a trade? The answer has less to do with his basketball prowess than the nature of his contract. Though Smith is scheduled to make just under $15.7 million next season, only $3.87 million of that is guaranteed, so a team with a big contract they would like to clear from their books may be properly incentivized to match salaries this year in order to save nearly $12 million next year. The Cavs, meanwhile, would be motivated by the desire to turn what has become basically dead money into an asset: demanding a first round pick for the money saved, or acquiring a distressed asset that may be overpriced, but in need of new scenery.
The first trade provides the latter. Otto Porter is looking like an absolute albatross for the Wizards as they unravel this season, and while John Wall and Bradley Beal are perennial All-Stars, who wants to spend $26 million on a player averaging 10-4-1? The Cavs. Last year, Porter enjoyed career-best marks in points per game, three-point accuracy, rebounds, and assists -- his 5th straight year of improving each! This year, he, and Washington writ large, is having a season to forget; that doesn't mean the 24-year old who put up a 14-6-2 with a 60% true shooting percentage was a mirage. For a Cleveland franchise that struggles to attract top talent in free agency, a former #3 overall pick who is entering his prime is a good get, if an expensive one.
A less-pedigreed player who also bears far less long-term commitment is Alex Abrines. Oklahoma City's need for better spacing is well-documented, and in Smith they would find a player familiar with the demands of ball-dominant superstar. As Roberson's time away from the court continues to grow, OKC may decide that they cannot wait for his return -- and expect that he will be the same player as when he left. The Cavs would have a season to decide if Abrines, a 38% three point shooter and just 25 himself, could thrive as more than a distant 5th option, and Smith, who famously said of Cleveland "I think this is the best situation for me, 'cause there's nothing to do but basketball," would find the same to be true in Oklahoma City.
Lastly, this trade, which includes a 1st-round pick, from surprising, Southwest Division-leading Memphis to Cleveland. What wouldn't the Grizzlies give to move on from the entirely ill-fated Chandler Parsons era? Hard to say, but they absolutely would give a first. It wouldn't be a pure salary dump either: right now Memphis is giving wing time to the likes of Dillon and MarShon Brooks and Wayne Selden, and starting Garrett Temple and Kyle 'Slo-Mo' Anderson. Smith and Korver would find themselves as key contributors walking through the door, and if Memphis decided to go into a full youth movement next year, Korver's contract is guaranteed for only $3.44 million. The Grizzlies could pay him and Smith $7 million total to go away, versus spending $24 million for Parsons to stay. That $17 million difference is worth a 1st rounder -- minimum.
Deals like these are precisely why the Cavs structured J.R. Smith's contract the way they did. Now is the time to put it to work for their future.