Throughout the past week, as NBA free agency dwindles into oblivion, rumors regarding the Sixers interest in unrestricted free agent guard J.R. Smith have heated up quite significantly. Smith, who saw himself jettison the entire length of the Eastern Conference success spectrum in a trade from the Knicks to the Cavaliers, is reportedly trying to work out a deal to bring himself back to Cleveland in the hopes of aiding LeBron James in the city’s quest for its first championship in 51 years. This seems like Smith’s likely fate, as Bret Sluter of The Sixers Sense reported Thursday that J.R. Smith had ‘turned his back’ on an offer from GM Sam Hinkie and the Sixers.
You read that right: the Sixers had offered J.R. SMITH a contract. Over the past three offseasons, a legitimate argument could be put forth that Philly has been the quietest team in the NBA in terms of free agent signings, and rightfully so. When you take into consideration that Hinkie had a vision of completely tearing apart the composition of the Sixers and building the roster from the ground up, then the acquisition of a middle-of-the road, pricy veteran player who may only consider Philly as a pit-stop/audition truthfully makes no sense.
But circumstances have changed.
As many know, the Sixers are now a full two years into their rigorous, re-stocking rebuild. As teams like the Celtics and Bucks have accelerated their rebuild into the Eastern Conference playoff picture, Sixers fans have been sitting on their hands waiting for Philly to finally make a push back to relevance once again. Some believe this is the year the Sixers march out of the goopy cellar of the Eastern Conference, while others believe Joel Embiid’s foot is literally kicking the Sixers back to counting ping-pong balls next June once again. In whichever case, it’s fair to say that the discussion regarding the Sixers plan for success has reached an ever-so-awkward tipping point.
Therefore, due to the Sixers position in their plan, it’s a fair argument to consider whether Smith would be a good fit for the Sixers: there HAS to come a time where the Sixers consider an expensive veteran, right?
Not to mention, have we just been given witness to the first reach the ultra-conservative Sam Hinkie has taken on veteran talent, or is there a method behind his madness?
When possessing as young of a roster as the Sixers do, it is crucial to find the right type of veteran to thrust into the locker room. Bringing in a guy like J.R. Smith goes beyond his numbers or career accolades, you must examine his attitude and how it may affect a locker room full of guys who were most likely in middle school when Smith was drafted.
One thing that has become clear about Smith is that he demands the ball. As a member of the Cavaliers, there have been countless moments where you can find J.R. calling for the ball and wanting to take ‘the big shot’. As a professional basketball player, where part of your job is to entertain fans on a nightly basis, wanting to dazzle with the ball in your hands can sometimes be a great mindset to possess. In Philly, however, this may not fly. Last season, after Michael Carter-Williams left the Sixers, the best player on the roster clearly became Nerlens Noel, and he took notice. Noel started to demand the ball: doing so caused his game to evolve immensely and resulted in the Sixers becoming more and more competitive as the season waned. Due to all of the countless hours of work the Sixers have put into Noel’s game, watching No. 4 call for the ball in crucial late-game situations brought about several ear-to-ear grins in South Philly. Having Noel (or even Jahlil Okafor for that matter) catch the ball on the left block with J.R. Smith clamoring from the right wing “I’m open, I’m open!” game after game may start to get old after a while: not to mention it could hamper the development of a future 7-foot superstar. If Smith begged for the ball with LeBron James as a teammate, then there is nothing stopping him from wanting to do the same in Philly.
Smith calling for the ball would have some merit, as there is no denying there are people who firmly believe J.R. would be one of the best 3 players on this current Sixers roster. That being said, his talent wouldn’t exactly chalk him into the starting line-up. About a month ago, Hinkie and the Sixers completely obliterated the Sacramento Kings in a trade that shipped highly-acclaimed guard Nik Stauskas to Philly. Stauskas and Smith play the same position, but due to the fact that Nik is younger and that Hinkie’s love for him has stamped his ticket into Philly’s future plans, the young Canadian may very well get the starting nod over time. In addition, some of J.R. Smith’s best performances have come in his role off the bench, with a 2013 Sixth Man of the Year trophy only furthering my point. However, this may not go over well with J.R. After all, he would no longer be playing behind guys like James, Kevin Love, Kyrie Irving, or even guys like Chris Paul and Carmelo Anthony earlier in his career. J.R. would easily have one of the loudest voices in this current Sixers locker room, so playing behind a relatively inexperienced starting line-up may cause for some unnecessary tension.
If coming off the bench doesn’t cause enough tension, losing will. It’s clear the Cavaliers are a better team than the Sixers at this point in time, so if you connect the dots, the Sixers will most likely lose more games than Cleveland next season. As Sixers fans, this is okay: we know of “The Process”, and we know of what steps we’d like to see the team take next season towards ultimate success in the future. If you’re J.R. Smith, fresh off of a trip to the NBA Finals, “The Process” doesn’t sound as appealing. Because he’s a professional, you know J.R. will say all of the right things to the media. Behind closed doors, however, you never know of the problems that may arise between himself and other teammates/staff if wins don’t amount.
Through all of this analysis, it’s important to keep in mind that Smith is still a solid NBA player. He is capable of ripping the net if he sees one or two shots fall early on in a game. There is not a doubt in my mind that if, for some reason, he were to revisit the Sixers offer, that the Sixers would improve their win total by about 3 to 6 games, which may be enough to keep playoff hopes alive into March. Signing a guy like J.R. Smith wouldn’t be the end of the world in any stretch, but with as young of a roster as the Sixers obtain, it may be in their best interest to hold off on any contract talks.
Still, Hinkie wanted a veteran piece to come in: I’m shocked.
I wonder who he’ll contact next.