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J.R. Smith is staying in Denver, which means some obligatory musing here about what might have been.
Smith agreed last week to hang around in the Rockies for three more years for a total of $16.5 million. It's hard to blame the guy. He was a restricted free agent, which limited his options in the first place. He was also highly productive last year and earned himself quite a raise. Locking up a deal that will more than double his annual salary (he made $2.1 million last year) makes a lot of sense from a personal finance standpoint.
But as a fan of the game, it's hard not to be a bit down about the signing for Smith, if only because of how intriguing it would have been to see how he would have done in another environment both on and off the basketball court.
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As we've discussed on several prior occasions in this space, J.R. Smith is a highly talented basketball player, particularly as far as putting the round orange projectile into the bigger orange hole. Smith is nothing if not a gunner, and he was highly successful in that role last seaosn, shooting better than 40 percent from the field and posting a true shooting of 60.3 percent. He scored 12.3 points per game off the bench and averaged 23 points per 36 minutes in his fourth season in the league last year. This is a guy who could definitely be a major asset to a basketall team.
But it's hard not to wonder if there aren't other spots that would be far better for him than Denver is.
As nice a scorer as Smith is, his tenure in Colorado has been littered with problems. On the court, he continues to be far from a complete player, as he is a 6-foot-6 guard who doesn't rebound well or defend at all. Away from the floor, Smith has had a litany of troubles, including dust-ups with coaches, a nightclub ruckus and a myriad of driving-related offenses, including an incident in which Smith's poor judgment behind the wheel resulted in the death of his passenger.
The Denver Nuggets aren't the team to help Smith overcome just about any of those issues. With Marcus Camby gone, the team's commitment to defense could be lower than ever before, and it's hard not to envision them falling out of the league's top ten in defensive efficiency. Smith plays on a team of guys who like to fly up the floor and heave, and he isn't going to learn to do much differently from the folks playing in front of him.
From a character standpoint, Denver isn't exactly the place to be either. Carmelo Anthony is of course the league's most notable overt antagonist of law enforcement as demonstrated with crystal clarity in his "Stop Snitching" endeavors. Though he has come to be more likable as a veteran, Allen Iverson has had his share of conduct issues. Kenyon Martin is no angel. While coach George Karl has disciplined Smith on a number of occasions, he is not heralded as the league's greatest teacher. This is a guy who shows no compulsion to avoid throwing his players under the bus and doesn't seem to have gotten through to Smith all that much from a behavioral standpoint over the last two years.
This is a guy with so much talent, and it's a shame to think that he could be spending the foreseeable future in a place where he is going to be allowed to have his skills stagnate and to continue his misdeeds if he so chooses. This isn't a plea for the Celtics to have made a run at the guy but a wish that he could have ended up on a team with a better coaching-leadership infrastructure and a more serious shot at a championship.
Smith's name was mentioned in connection with the Spurs earlier this summer. That would have been interesting. Finding out whether he could straighten out his behavior around Gregg Popovich and Tim Duncan and seeing if he could fit into a top-tier team defensive system with the right support from the organization would have been great litmus tests of what this guy is made of. Maybe he could have given the Pistons a huge spark off the bench and been kept in line by the old guard there. Or perhaps a trip to Utah to deal with Jerry Sloan, the ultimate old school coach.
For all the mistakes J.R. Smith has made, he is 22 years old and has an entire NBA career ahead of him. It has the potential to be a highly productive NBA career, and in the right situation, it could be a winning one as well. But the guess here is that the longer Smith stays in Denver, the less we'll see him really continue to develop as an all-around basketball player and young man. And that would really be too bad.