This man would have been a bargain at 1.67 times the price last year. (WireImage)J.R. Smith has been pretty relentlessly entertaining throughout his NBA career, and his brief tenure with the New York Knicks has been no exception. Whether checking into his first game after joining the team in February with an absolutely remarkable haircut or going for late-night bike rides with Knicks fans, posting pictures of his girlfriend's hind parts on Twitter or throwing down an emphatic monster dunk while down double-digits in a game and playoff series in which the Knicks were getting destroyed, Smith has been a regular source of blithe nonsense that fans seem to find exhilarating and cringe-worthy in equal measure (and, often, at the same time).
He's continued his headline-making since re-signing with the Knicks earlier this summer, openly saying some New York players would probably take it personally if the team matched the poison-pill contract that Jeremy Lin got from the Houston Rockets in restricted free agency (luckily, they didn't!), claiming the Knicks have enough talent to win a championship and then doubling down on that comment by guaranteeing a title during New York Fashion Week.
Whenever he's in front of a microphone, Smith is worth the price of admission. And during a basketball clinic he was running with brother and fellow Knick Chris Smith at the Monroe Sports Center in Monroe Township, N.J., Smith said he feels like he's well worth his new two-year contract, and then some. From Josh Newman of ZagsBlog:
Smith has said publicly that he had more money offered to him, but in the end, liked being home and liked playing for the Knicks. He ultimately signed a two-year contract with the second year being a player option. He will make $2.8 million this coming season under the contract. [...]
"I think anything is a bargain with me, whether I'm playing for a dollar or $20 million it's a bargain because I'm going to play hard no matter what," Smith told SNY.tv. "No matter how much I get paid, it will never affect how hard I play and I think that should be thought about when people see me next year."
On one hand, it's nice to hear that Smith's level of effort is not dependent on his paycheck. And while his practice habits have come into question in the past, owing to calling himself "not really a morning person" early in his career and racking up $1 million in missed-practice fines while playing in China last season, he certainly seemed to burn plenty of calories after signing with the Knicks for the midlevel exception of just under $2.5 million last season (a paycut of nearly $4.4 million from his 2010-11 salary with the Denver Nuggets, by the way).
Yes, he jacked up too many shots — especially 3-pointers, firing more than seven per 36 minutes of floor time — and often gambled on defense, but those are sins of commission (trying to do too much and make big plays) rather than omission (not caring enough to try). There are plenty of negative things to say about the way Smith played last year, especially in the playoffs, but he came off the bench with gusto night in and night out, and J.R. is right to suggest that that's worth noting and commending. It's also worth noting that Smith actually was something of a bargain for the Knicks last year, if you believe in Win Shares, an advanced statistical metric that aims to estimate how much an individual player contributes to team wins with his play.
According to Basketball-Reference.com's numbers, J.R. contributed 2.5 wins in his 35 regular-season games with New York. Using Arturo Galletti's formula for measuring the value of a win in a given season — total salary paid (for last year, $1,917,442,054, per ShamSports.com's salary database) divided by total number of wins available (the number of teams in the league multiplied by 41, or 1,230) — we can peg the value of a win during the 2011-12 season at $1.56 million. Multiply 2.5 Win Shares by that $1.56 million-per-win value, and by one metric, J.R. was worth $3.9 million to the Knicks last season, which is pretty good value for a guy they paid just under $2.34 million. (He gave back some of that value in the postseason, of course, kicking in -0.4 Win Shares during a nightmarish five-game performance against the Miami Heat that saw him shoot just 31.6 percent from the floor and 17.9 percent from 3-point land.)
Based on both his effort and his production-per-paycheck, yes, you can argue that J.R. Smith is something of a bargain ... just so long as you don't use J.R. Smith's definition of "bargain," because whether you are paying a player one dollar or 20 million dollars goes a very, very long way toward determining whether that player is a bargain. Every NBA player would be a bargain if he got paid $1, because the absolute minimum any NBA player can make is $473,604. For a veteran heading into his ninth season, as J.R. is, the minimum salary is $1,229,255. (I mean, this is America; I get paid more than $1, for Pete's sake.)
However, not every NBA player would be a bargain at $20 million per year; in fact, only one player could claim to be last season, and while four players made more than that — Kobe Bryant ($25.2 million), Rashard Lewis ($22.1 million), Tim Duncan ($21.3 million) and Kevin Garnett ($21.2 million) — it wasn't any of them. Using the same Win Shares-based method for figuring out how much J.R. was worth last year, we can suss out that a player would have to have put up at least 12.8 Win Shares during the '11-12 season to be worth that much, which is a list that includes one name: LeBron James, who was worth 14.5 wins for the Miami Heat last season, according to Basketball-Reference.com. If we dial it down to 12.7, Los Angeles Clippers point guard Chris Paul makes it a duo; that's it. While we admire his limitless self-confidence, J.R. Smith at $20 million ... um ... *definitely* wouldn't be a bargain.
Admittedly, it's kind of weird to think of guys like James, who made just over $16 million last year, and Paul, who made just under $16.4 million, as "bargains," but relatively speaking, they are. (And in the context of the NBA, LeBron's definitely not overpaid, no matter what America thinks.) From a different perspective, it's also a little weird to think of Smith, an often-unreliable sixth man for a No. 7 seed that got drummed out in the first round, as a bargain, too. But they were, and he was, and if he performs at about the same clip for his $2.8 million this year, he will be again.
Sure, he'd be an even bigger one if he did it for a buck, but I don't think the NBPA would take too kindly to that. As long as he doesn't try to play like he's worth $20 million a year, though, Knicks fans will probably be cool with it. (Seriously, J.R.: Less is more. Please.)
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