By Brian Robb, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) – The Cleveland Cavaliers are the undisputed favorites in the Eastern Conference for the 2016-17 season, but they are currently missing a key part of their lineup as they prepare to defend the 2016 crown: starting shooting guard J.R. Smith.
The 31-year-old unrestricted free agent has been marred in a stalemate with Cavs management since July. He is seeking a sizable raise from his $5 million salary in 2015-16 and has a good case for a pay bump after averaging 11.5 points per game on 40 percent shooting from downtown in last year’s Finals run. Just how much of a raise he deserves is the issue looming over him and Cleveland.
The Cavs own his Bird Rights and can pay him anything, but are reportedly offering him $10-11 million per year in a new deal at this point, according to Frank Isola of the New York Daily News. Smith’s agent is balking at that total, wanting his salary to triple to $15 million per year, a number that would cost the Cavs’ millions more with the added luxury tax payment. Cleveland is wisely playing the waiting game with Smith since no team in the NBA has that kind of salary cap space (Brooklyn, Philadelphia) is looking to bring in a 31-year-old Smith in the fold in middle of rebuilding for the money he’s looking for.
Neither the Cavs or Smith appear ready to budge off their demands just yet, but Isola threw a little wrinkle in his article that caught plenty of Boston fans off guard: The Celtics have interest in J.R. Smith if he can’t find a middle ground with the Cavs on a new deal. While that fact might be true (the C’s like Smith), there’s a pretty strong reason you shouldn’t buy into this rumor or get your hopes up if you are a Celtics fan.
Let’s start with the math. Isola claims the Celtics have $9 million in cap room right now to use on Smith. That’s blatantly false. The C’s are less than a million dollars under the salary cap at the moment after electing to sign Tyler Zeller back in July along with second round pick Demetrius Jackson. They have the salary cap room room exception to spend (about $3 million) but that’s all there is left in the piggy bank for the time being.
Could the Celtics theoretically open up the salary cap space to offer Smith a richer deal that’s closer to his asking price of $15 million? Absolutely, but it would not come easily and wouldn’t necessarily make sense for the team’s success. Only Amir Johnson and Al Horford earn more than $10 million per year on the team’s current roster, so you would have to deal several other players away to make the math work and get the salary cap space needed. Danny Ainge has worked hard to put together a well-balanced roster with low-cost contracts, so it’s safe to safe he’s not going to blow that work up for a player like J.R. Smith.
The 6-foot-6 guard would certainly help the Celtics with his outside shooting in theory, but he’s not a valuable enough piece to shake up the roster for, which would be needed to create room for his signing.
The bottom line here? Don’t count on seeing Smith in a Celtics uniform this season. In fact, the odds still remain strongly in favor of him returning to Cleveland as his other alternatives are limited.
Brian Robb covers the Celtics for CBS Boston and contributes to NBA.com, among other media outlets. You can follow him on Twitter @CelticsHub.