J.R. Smith became a free agent after his first two seasons with the Cavaliers. Then, in 2016, Cleveland signed him to a contract that guaranteed $45.15 million over three years or paid $56.96 million if he was kept for a fourth year.
From there, Smith’s play declined sharply.
Some of that is tolerable to anyone with basic decency. Smith endured his daughter being born premature and spending several months in the hospital.
David Griffin on the Wine and Gold Talk Podcast:
I think obviously the personal situation that he and Shirley went through with their daughter had a great bearing on him emotionally during that period of time. I think the fact that he got guaranteed money moving forward really made it so he was less likely to keep himself in shape than when he was going year to year. There was a reason he was so good on a year-to-year contract, and part of that was, emotionally, he needed to care at the end of the year. So, I think to some degree, he shows up out of shape and then he gets injured getting himself in shape. And, so I hope what we see this year is a J.R. Smith that’s hellbent on proving something and shows up in shape. And if he does that and he doesn’t get injured, I think he’s still capable of playing high-level basketball. But he hasn’t been motivated to be that since he signed the deal, so you would have to say in that situation, the deal wasn’t the right deal, because it didn’t bring out the best in J.R.
It’s important to remember the greater context of 2016 free agency: The salary cap had just skyrocketed as new national-TV deals kicked in, so many teams had significant cap space. The Cavaliers were capped out, leaving them no mechanism to replace Smith with a comparable outside player. They were also coming off a championship and trying to continue contending – a time it’s important to spend for helpful contributors.
Smith’s deal was logical, even if it now carries negative value. That was predictable as Smith aged into his 30s. The hope was just that he’d provide enough production early in the deal to justify it.
Now, Cleveland must just hope Smith resummons his contract-year competitiveness this season. But even if he does, this will likely be a lesson to other teams about how much to invest in the guard.