The Denver Nuggets have a lot of decisions to make this summer. They sport one of the deepest rosters in the league, but many players have uncertain futures either due to expiring contracts or the potential to clear up positional logjams via trades. Over the next few days we will be looking at these players to determine who must stay and who must go. We start off with one of the most decisive Nuggets, J.R. Smith.
Don’t let Karl push out a true Nugget
After the playoffs concluded I was abraded and ready to move on. J.R. Smith and Karl just finished getting in their thousandth career player-coach feud vicariously hosted by the media, and I had finally had enough; let J.R. walk and lets be done with it. Obviously if I had to choose between Karl and J.R., readers of this blog know who I would take in a heartbeat; but being that Karl just signed a three-year extension and J.R. is primed to become a free agent, destiny seems to be pointing in the direction of only one — Karl and his first-round playoff exits — instead of the most exciting, fan-favorite highlight machine in recent Nuggets memory. Although I was discomforted by this notion, I came to accept it as inevitable. I just wanted J.R. to be happy and Karl to no longer have somebody to blame for his shortcomings. Sometimes we forget, in the world of sports, that these athletes are human beings out there, not just some surreal, fan-pleasing superheroes. These guys have feelings, emotions, desires, aspirations and lives outside of basketball. If J.R. was truly unhappy with Karl and vice versa, then the cantankerous relationship that has simmered forever should simply end, especially now that J.R.’s contract has expired leaving him the option to sign with anybody. But now that I’ve had some time to touch on Karl’s dispensability, I’ve realized that J.R. shouldn’t be the one forced out of town by a single grumpy denizen, when he has thousands of supporters whose love overpowers the minute bit of hate directed towards him — unless of course he truly does want to leave for his own personal endeavors.
I was helped to this epiphany when on May 9, 2011, I attended a Rockies game and noticed J.R. walking into the team gift shop. I knew it was him the instant I saw the letters “Swish” threaded into the back of his hat, and immediately followed him inside out of pure fascination. J.R had no problem gliding through the store, fetching whatever he desired (I think he bought a few t-shirts), but eventually people caught on and approached for autographs, photos and anything else they could pry out of the monstrous 6-foot-6 shooting guard. I observed J.R. the entire time, and not once did he turn down anybody who begged for a moment of his life, in fact, J.R. seemed more than happy to offer his name and face on Rockies memorabilia of all shapes and sizes. At the time I was with two friends, both of whom are big Nuggets/J.R. fans, and just as J.R. had done with all the other contestants, he signed both their shirts and shook hands amiably.
Following this encounter, one of my acquaintances who got J.R. to autograph his Troy Tulowitzki shirt (of all things), then began calling family members, friends and anybody else who’d listen to him proclaim with childlike enthusiasm how awesome it was to meet J.R. He was laughing the entire time, overjoyed, eventually admitting how his face hurt from smiling so much and how he would never wash that shirt again no matter how dirty it became. It was then that I sat back with a cold Coors Light (that’s basically all the options at Coors Field: Coors or Coors Light, go figure) and really began to contemplate exactly what J.R. means to the Nuggets as I thought, “Would my friend have been this happy to meet anybody else on the Nuggets?” Unequivocally, the answer was “No.” J.R., and only J.R., has the unrivaled ability to make fans jump out of their seats as if a firecracker was beneath it, both at Nuggets games and Rockies games. He’s just that guy that you can’t help but love. They say some coaches are players’ coaches; J.R. is a fan’s player.
Undoubtedly J.R. deserves better than what he’s received from Karl, and part of me wants to see him get the opportunity to start because of how much he deserves it, but J.R. has been here for so long that I feel like he’s truly a Nugget at this point — you know, just like how Kobe Bryant is a Laker or Derek Jeter a Yankee; J.R. Smith is a Nugget — and whenever you’re truly a member of a franchise, you can’t leave in your prime. Seeing J.R. play for another team, to many fans (including me), would be heartbreaking and wrong. Since he is a Nugget, it’s only right that the best basketball of his career be played in Denver. He’s been a common factor in the Nuggets most successful period ever, and that should continue to blossom as our team looks primed to remain competitive in the Western Conference for the near future. Ending things so abruptly and on such disappointing terms would be unsettling with shades of despondency, especially for J.R. fans. Karl and Smith should both surrender some of their pride (especially Karl), and attempt atonement by reconstructing a relationship that’s always been in shambles, as it would not only benefit both player and coach, but the entire team as well.
By re-signing J.R., the Nuggets would be taking another step towards stability (and yes, I know how awkward that sounds), as he provides the pure scoring punch every NBA team needs, which without him we don’t have. We would remain one of the deepest teams in the league, and our bench would continue to ignite the Pepsi Center crowd that provides the Nuggets with one of the best home-court advantages in all of basketball. Trust me, without J.R., ain’t nobody coming in from the Nuggets bench to save the day when we need it most. J.R. is that guy who can catch you during a free-fall, sweep you back up into it the sky — a la Superman — and occasionally produce a momentum changing swing that wins you the game. When combined with Birdman, the Nuggets have character, passion, energy and excitement unlike any other team in the league off the bench. These guys give people a reason to, not just attend games, but be ready to exert energy in the form of cheering, jumping and slapping hands with fellow fans as well. If you took J.R. away, Birdman won’t have a partner in flight and the bench just won’t be that same reviving breath of fresh air that has saved us so many times.
But more than anything, J.R. Smith is a good deal. He’s relatively cheap and for what he gives you, it’s a great trade-off. Having J.R. on your team is like always going into battle with some crazy-new untested weapon: more often than not you’re going to be blow away with the advantage you have and how much fun it is, but there’s always a small chance something could go wrong. Though J.R. is a bit of a gamble, he’s well worth the money because his ceiling is so high and there are virtually no risks involved given that we’ve already seen “Bad J.R.” (as Karl likes to refer to him as) and weathered that storm, so-to-speak. By re-signing him we’re not going to get anything less than what we already have — a perennial Sixth Man of the Year candidate, fan-favorite and great teammate — plus, we secure the possibility of owning him in the event that he does mature (we’ve already seen glimpses this season) and does evolve into the player we all know he can be deep down inside. Yes, J.R. hasn’t quite reached the potential he maybe should have at this point, but he’s made tons of progress along way, which makes bailing out now all the more ridiculous. Maybe he won’t ever be that 20 ppg guy we know he can be, but I’d rather have him on our team if it were to happen, than see it occur with another club.
In my eyes, J.R. loves Denver and Denver loves him back equally as much. If we’re satisfied with keeping Karl, I see no reason why we should build the team around his malfunctions and ship players everyone else loves but him, out of town. If we can’t even compete come playoff time, then what is a supposed “head case” like J.R. really doing that’s a detriment to our success anyways? J.R. would be admittedly risky on a team like the Lakers, Heat or Celtics; but not the Nuggets. Until we can somehow prove that once playoff time starts all mistakes are taboo — which George Karl cannot through his own coaching methods — then J.R. remains nothing but a positive for this team and franchise going forward.
You do not hang onto losing lottery tickets
What to do with J.R. Smith? It is one of the most important questions facing the Denver Nuggets this offseason. I have been very open about my affection for J.R. over the years. Starting with his first appearance in summer league for the Hornets his rookie season I have always been blown away by his offensive talents. There nothing he cannot do on that end of the court. Nothing. He can finish in traffic, play the pick and roll (he and Nene are absolutely deadly together), is a gifted passer capable of setting up teammates, has a solid midrange game, can shoot off the dribble as well as anyone and as we all know has unlimited range.
Sadly, J.R. has never put all his talents together to become the dominant player he is capable of being. The question is how long are we supposed to wait?
Of course Smith is mere pup as he will turn 26 shortly before training camp (hopefully) commences this fall. He still has time to reach his potential and it is difficult to fathom dealing with five seasons of growing pains only to see J.R. move on and fulfill his vast potential somewhere else.
The problem with that argument is it is based on the assumption is J.R. is still growing as a player. I fear that is no longer the case.
Looking at last season J.R. has made sizeable leaps as a defender from where he was early in his career. He is much more focused and has shown the ability, or at least the willingness, to take on superstar caliber players such as Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade. He still falls asleep from time to time and gambles a little too much in going for steals, however, his defense has reached an acceptable level.
The problem in my mind is J.R. is not good enough at what he is supposed to be good at. Offensively, he peaked three seasons ago and I have no idea why.
By almost any metric you want to use Smith’s career year was 2007-08. He set career highs in field goal percentage, true shooting percentage, three point percentage, points per minute and PER. If J.R. was on an upward track to being all he can be, why have his numbers not been improving? Smith actually made very good advances in what was probably his greatest weakness last season and that was his shot selection. The number of off balance off the dribble three pointers dropped precipitously. It was rare to see J.R. forcing bad shots. With such an improvement in that area you would expect to see a boost in his efficiency, but strangely that was not the case. While his three point percentage rebounded back to the level you would expect his overall percentages were subpar.
Is this all we have to look forward to? A streaky sixth man who remains inconsistent from game to game after seven NBA campaigns? Smith did post his second best assist rate, had a stellar rebound rate for a shooting guard and posted a career best turnover rate. Those ancillary stats are nice, but they are small victories in a battle to improve year after year that J.R. is losing.
For all the explosive scoring outbursts, jaw dropping dunks and stunning plays you still do not know if you can count on J.R. on any given night. Did I mention 2010-11 was his seventh year in the league?
J.R. has had his fill of problems off the court, but has been a decent citizen as of late, save for an alleged altercation at the Pepsi Center prior to the start of training camp last season. As far as I am concerned, his off the court issues are irrelevant in this discussion.
The real nail in the coffin for my belief in Smith is his lack of getting the job done when it counts the most, the postseason. Smith’s percentages fall off a cliff when the games involve the words “best of”. Even worse is it is not only his scoring that falls off, but his rebounding and passing tail off as well. For a player who is always pointed to as a major X factor in every postseason game Denver plays you can typically put a big cartoonish X over him when he is on the floor because he has yet to help push Denver over the top. To be fair he did play well against the Hornets and Mavericks in the Nuggets 2008 run to the conference finals, but failed to produce against the Lakers or in any series since.
The truly bad news for J.R. and his supporters is the fact that the man who determines how much time J.R. spends on the court clearly does not believe in him nor is he going anywhere anytime soon. George Karl has certainly failed to reach J.R. and his tactics are very debatable. Depending on who you listen to he rarely talks with J.R. and Smith has been confused on what Karl truly wants from him. Regardless, Karl is inked for another three years at the helm of the Nuggets. That fact certainly does not bode well for J.R.
Now that the Nuggets have plenty of depth in the backcourt it is easier and easier for Karl to keep Smith on a short leash. If you think that is going to change you have not been paying attention. For whatever reason for all the good Karl has brought to Denver his inability to bring out the best in J.R. is chief among his failures.
Finally we have to look at money. How much will it cost to retain J.R.? While the NBA is likely facing labor strife that will result in a more financially restrictive CBA there are plenty of teams that will have cap space this offseason. Denver was able to resign J.R. to a reasonable three year deal as a restricted free agent in the summer of 2008. This summer he will be an unrestricted free agent and the Nuggets cannot use the threat of matching an offer sheet to keep suitors away this time. I would expect to see someone offer J.R. a contract at a salary similar to what he is making now.
That would certainly not be an outrageous price tag for a solid NBA player, but Denver is in the position to put themselves in a very good position financially over the next two seasons. Paying $5 or $6 million to a player who is destined to be coming off the bench and lacking the trust of his coach is not fiscally responsible.
As much as I hate to admit it, it is in Denver’s best interests to part ways with J.R. Denver has been holding onto J.R. like a lottery ticket hoping to cash in on that big payday. He came as cheap as you could imagine costing Denver only the corpse of Howard Eisley and two second round picks (who turned out to be JamesOn Curry and Aaron Grey). The truth about lottery tickets is very few of them pay out. For all the promise and hope that J.R. has tantalized us with it looks like the numbers are in and Smith did not payout.
Let us know if you think J.R. should stay or go in the comments!