INDEPENDENCE, Ohio – LeBron James’ block of Andre Iguodala in the final minutes of Game 7 of the NBA Finals will remain the most iconic image of the Cleveland Cavaliers’ improbable, curse-crushing comeback against the Golden State Warriors. The most overlooked aspect of that play was the defense of J.R. Smith, who forced Iguodala to double pump on his layup attempt and gave James those necessary fractions of a second to pin the ball against the backboard. Aside from the incredible display of speed, athleticism and last-gasp desperation, the play also revealed something else about James – he had Smith’s back.
Three months later, Smith has had an eventful summer: his shirtless appearances throughout the Cavaliers’ parade and everywhere else gained the attention of President Obama, he got married, and he jumped in a mosh pit at a Kanye West concert at Madison Square Garden. But Smith still remains an unrestricted free agent.
James again came out in support of his good friend – whom he called this week “the most liked player on the team” – on Friday to get a deal done with the Cavaliers. He also expressed his disappointment that the team isn’t whole during training camp, only a year after Tristan Thompson had a lengthy holdout before signing before the start of last season.
“I hate coming into another season – two years in a row – with one of my big guns not here. So, for a leader of a team and for me personally, I just hate to deal with this [expletive] again,” James said. “It’s just too big of a piece to our team to have to deal with in another training camp. Hopefully things get resolved fast, because you know how big and important he is to our team.”
Cavaliers general manager David Griffin said the organization made “an incredibly competitive and aggressive offer” to bring back Smith, who established himself as an effective and complementary starting shooting guard alongside James and Kyrie Irving during Cleveland’s championship run. Smith added discipline and patience to his shot selection, became a more than serviceable defensive player and expected to be rewarded with a contract that reportedly would triple the $5 million he earned last season.
“Negotiations are always two sides, but J.R. did his part,” James said. “J.R. did his part. He showed up every day. Worked his ass off every day. Became a two-way player, a model citizen in Cleveland and he’s a fan favorite, obviously, we all know that. All of a sudden now he’s a season-ticket holder at the Indians’ games. You know, so. … But we just miss him. We miss having him around. He’s a big piece of our team and they just need to get it done.”
James and Smith both share the same agent, Rich Paul, who also represents Thompson. The Cavaliers have the league’s second-highest payroll at nearly $118 million and don’t have many options to find a viable replacement for Smith, aside from a $10 million trade exception. Iman Shumpert, who arrived with Smith from New York during a trade-deadline deal in February 2015, is slated to start at shooting guard.
“We’re still missing a huge piece of our team. So we’re not all the way comfortable yet. Once that is resolved, hopefully soon, we can really get into what we need to do,” James said. “We still have enough talent. But we can’t become full until he’s here. But that doesn’t deter anybody or any of the guys that’s coming in to show up every day. We’re still working our tails off and everybody who is filling in has been working extremely hard through this camp so far, and we’re going to continue to do that.”
Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue sounded confident that Smith would eventually return and wouldn’t fall behind much after being in the system for the past two years. Smith hasn’t aggressively sought a deal from anywhere except Cleveland, and the five teams that have the ability to meet his salary demands – Brooklyn, Denver, Philadelphia, Phoenix and Utah – haven’t showed much, or any, interest.
“It’s like you’re buying a house. You can go find a house, you do all the negotiations and all that, but you never got the house until it’s closed and you got the keys. Last minute someone can step in. Escrow could fall through or something. Then it ain’t your house no more,” James said. “So, J.R. is a free agent. He’s not ours. He’s still my brother right now. And I feel like when I play 2K17, he’s still on the Cavs, so he’s on my roster there, but it wouldn’t be good if he was not here. It wouldn’t be good for any side.”
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