The New York Knicks present their fans and impartial observers alike with bizarre stories, circumstances, and decisions on a regular basis, but they continue to defy expectations and standard NBA logic. On Monday, another of those instances occurred when it was revealed that reigning Sixth Man of the Year J.R. Smith, signed to what was reported as a four-year deal only four days earlier, had undergone surgery on his left knee that would keep him out for three to four months. It was reported by many outlets that Smith's knee issues were common knowledge during his period of free agency, but that still didn't do much to answer why they weren't publicized when the deal was announced. It was hard to escape the thought that the Knicks were hiding information, if not quite lying outright.
On Tuesday night, an even more curious wrinkle was introduced to the story. As reported by Howard Beck of The New York Times, Smith's new contract is actually for three seasons, not the four everyone assumed it was when the news first came to light:
The revelation that J. R. Smith had knee surgery Monday — just four days after signing a rich, new four-year contract — made the Knicks’ investment look instantly suspect and possibly ill-advised. But the surgery was not a surprise to team officials. And the investment was not as extensive as first believed.
Smith’s deal covers a maximum of three years, with a total value of $17.95 million, not the four years and $24.5 million that was widely reported, including in The New York Times, last week.
The precise terms were confirmed Tuesday by a rival team executive and a second person with access to the contract. Despite the intense scrutiny of the deal, Knicks General Manager Glen Grunwald made no attempt to correct the erroneous reports during a 16-minute conference call with reporters Tuesday.
The contract calls for Smith to make $5.57 million next season and $5.98 million in 2014-15, with a third-year player option at $6.4 million. It is still a considerable commitment for a player with a checkered career and now a surgically repaired left knee. But Grunwald betrayed no concern on Tuesday.
In the simplest terms, this news is a good thing for the Knicks. If the revelation of Smith's knee surgery made his new deal look foolish, then it's clearly wiser to invest less money over fewer years for a 27-year-old reserve whose future health now seems much less certain. For that matter, a four-year deal for Smith seemed like a potential problem even before his knee presented so many other questions. Throughout his career, Smith has been a volatile presence for both contenders and lottery teams, displaying amazing talent without the consistency and mature decisions most teams like to see in their big-money players. At the very least, paying Smith for three seasons instead of four presents less risk.
On the other hand, the fact that no one in the Knicks organization made the terms of this deal known before Beck's report raises even more questions about who knew what and when about Smith's contract. As our Dan Devine pointed out on Tuesday, while the long-term implications of this surgery could be minor, if noticeable at all, the confusion still doesn't inspire much confidence in the team's ability to create, stick to, and even explain their plans. Those problems have only been exacerbated now. Why couldn't anyone have told the team's fans and reporters that Smith's deal was actually for one less season than everyone had previously reported? Wouldn't that have caused less consternation over the news of his surgery? Plus, isn't it simply advisable to present accurate information over something as uncontroversial as the length of a free-agent contract?
We can't answer these questions, because the Knicks appear to value secrecy over presenting themselves as a well-run, sane organization. In recent years, their inability to stick to a story or hold to one plan — remember when they vowed to match any offer for restricted free agent Jeremy Lin? — has made them look like an ungodly mess, the NBA's version of an Aristocrats joke. If there is an answer for why the information regarding Smith's knee and contract was kept silent, a simple explanation would cut through all the confusion surrounding this situation. However, given what we've seen from the franchise, it's likely that we'll be left to wonder for quite some time.
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