Pending free agent J.R. Smith has been an enigma since entering the NBA in 2005. On the basis of pure talent, he should be one of the top wing producers in the league, and he often looks like exactly that. Yet Smith has never managed to put together a consistent string of performances to prove himself worthy of making him the cornerstone of a franchise.
He got closest this season with the New York Knicks, earning Sixth Man of the Year honors and receiving standard-issue statements from media and team officials regarding his improved maturity. In true J.R. fashion, he followed that career peak with a sort of greatest hits compilation of his worst tendencies, to the point where many Knicks fans begged for head coach Mike Woodson to bench a player who only a few weeks before seemed essential to fulfilling their postseason aspirations.
Nevertheless, Smith has the chance to parlay his award-winning season into a significant deal this summer. Despite the troubles this postseason, J.R. wants to stay with the Knicks for as long as he can. From Peter Botte for the New York Daily News (via SLAM):
Whether Smith, 27, gets a chance to redeem himself in New York is uncertain. He is expected to opt out of the final year of his below-market value contract ($2.8 million per year) and test free agency this summer. The most the Knicks can offer the Jersey product is an “early Bird” exception starting at $4.9 million per year over four years, but there might be a team with more salary-cap room willing to pay Smith substantially more.
“I want to retire a Knick. I don’t want to go anywhere else,” Smith said. “I love my teammates, I love my coaches. I was standing in the locker room looking at my jersey after the game and just knowing that I don’t want to be anywhere else except in the orange and blue. We’ll see.”
Still, when asked if he’d be willing to take less money to remain in New York, Smith hedged and added, “I haven’t even thought about all that, that far. I still have to talk to (agent) Leon (Rose) and see where we’re at.”
The sentiment of this statement is perfectly acceptable. Smith has enjoyed his time with the Knicks and thinks he can build on this season's successes. There's no better way to profess one's belief in a franchise than by saying it could be a permanent home. The logic of Smith's statement only means so much — it's more of an emotional thing.
Nevertheless, it's interesting to consider what would have to happen for J.R. Smith to retire as a Knick. Smith will turn 28 before the start of next season. A conservative estimate says he has approximately six more season in the NBA. If Marc Berman's report that he is ready to sign a four-year deal with New York is correct, then a conservative estimate would require Smith to sign at least one more contract after this one to reach the end of his career. Or, who knows, maybe he'll retire at 30 to become a professional golfer. Weirder things have happened to less bizarre people.
J.R. has already spent two seasons in New York, which means he'd have to play roughly eight years in all with the Knicks to reach the fairly early retirement age of 34. Smith spent five seasons with the Denver Nuggets, so he has proven some ability to stick with a single franchise for a protracted period of time.
Yet the Nuggets stuck it out with Smith through many different disputes and unfortunate incidents largely because he was a young, developing player who might eventually mature. In this postseason, he proved that he is most likely never going to be that guy, either just because he's wired to self-destruct or just because teams tend to get frustrated that he's not the star he seems he could be. The NBA is not the sort of league that's inclined to commit to players who could ever inspire the headline "J.R. Smith Says He's Not Worried About Rihanna's Insults."
This doesn't mean that Smith is a useless player and shouldn't have a job. To the contrary, he absolutely earned his Sixth Man trophy and can do a lot of good for a team with title aspirations. However, Smith may not be a player best committed to over long periods of time. Given the shape of his career up until this point, it's possible that he should enter into short-term agreements. In other words, he's the kind of player who may never be able to sign a contract that ensures him of retiring with one franchise.
All this means, really, is that every player can't be approached with the same kind of contractual logic. Like anyone, he must be engaged on his own terms.