As the scheduled start of the NBA season nears and an end to the lockout looks further away than anyone had hoped, more notable free agents are forgetting about the prospect of a new contract and pursuing contracts overseas. Foreign leagues may not be up to the quality of the NBA, but the fan bases adore basketball and their teams usually pay their checks on time. Plus, in the event that they can't afford to pay all contracts, they won't stiff the star. Sorry, end-of-bench proletarian from the local village.
Add erstwhile Nuggets sixth man J.R. Smith to the list of departing Americans. As reported by Yahoo!'s own Adrian Wojnarowski, Smith has signed for one season with Zhejiang in the China Basketball Association, joining Nuggets teammate and fellow free agent Wilson Chandler as the two highest-paid players in the league. Chinese teams have barred players under NBA contract, as well, so Smith is going to be there even if the NBA comes back.
Many will miss him -- others will celebrate his exit. Look at Smith's stats and you see a perfectly nice player: a quality shooter who's perhaps too profligate, but a valuable piece nonetheless. Anyone who's watched him, though, knows the truth. Smith is as naturally talented as any shooting guard in the league, but his streakiness and bouts of indifference make him a frustrating player. When Smith is on, he can hit 10 3-pointers in a single game or come up with the best dunk of the year. When he's off, he can anger his coach or confuse an air-ball with a swish. Oh, and sometimes he even runs afoul of the law and goes to jail. For every success, there's at least one mistake that makes you wonder if he subsists off nitrogen instead of oxygen.
It's tempting to say that Smith would be a better player if he could just get himself together, but he's also weird enough that thinking of a J.R. Smith who's not an eternal enigma is impossible. For all we know, his success is tied up in his off-kilter ways. On top of that, it's not as if J.R. doesn't already do normal-person things: He's an avid golfer and claims "Everybody Loves Raymond" and "The Kings of Queens" as two of his favorite TV shows.
Smith is a bizarre character and I cannot entirely blame Nuggets fans if they cheer his decision to play in China. However, he is one of the most consistently fascinating players in the league, a guy with star talent who plays with all the predictability of a 20-sided die. The NBA -- or heck, even thinking about the NBA -- will be less interesting with him in a foreign country. If fandom is about something more than whether your team wins or loses, then Smith is an important part of the basketball experience. To consider his exit on the same level as that of any other sixth man is to pretend that Smith is the sum of his stats. As he's proven many times since his rookie season, he's way more than that. For a certain kind of NBA fan, he's a huge part of what makes this league worth following.
So come back soon, J.R. It's cool to imagine you launching golf balls over the Great Wall and wrestling pandas for kicks, but you belong in the NBA.