INDEPENDENCE: LeBron James has been through this before. Just last year, fellow Klutch Sports client Tristan Thompson was embroiled in a contract dispute with the Cavaliers and James did his best to stay out of it. Now faced with a similar scenario again, James isn’t staying so quiet. He pressured the Cavs on Friday to strike a deal with free-agent guard J.R. Smith before it’s too late.
“Negotiations are always two sides, but J.R. did his part,” James said. “He showed up every day. Worked his [butt] off every day. Became a two-way player, a model citizen in Cleveland and he’s a fan favorite. … He’s a big piece of our team and they just need to get it done.”
Smith shares an agent, Rich Paul, with both Thompson and James. Thompson’s holdout last year ended days before the start of the regular season when both sides finally agreed on a five-year, $82 million deal. But Thompson was a restricted free agent, meaning he was bound to return to the Cavs at some point. Smith is an unrestricted free agent and available to sign with another team. To this point, he has remained close to Cleveland during the dispute, even taking in a few Indians games.
“I hate coming into another season — two years in a row — with one of my big guns not here,” James said Friday. “So for a leader of a team and for me personally, I just hate to deal with this s*** again. It’s just too big of a piece to our team to have to deal with in another training camp. Hopefully things get resolved fast, because you know how big and important he is to our team.”
James’ comments came hours after Smith on Thursday retweeted something Paul wrote on his Twitter account four years ago: “Negative communications, corrupt good manners ...” Sources on both sides, however, said the timing of Smith’s retweet and James’ comments are merely a coincidence, that negotiations between the two sides have not soured. Of course, they haven’t progressed much, either.
ESPN.com reported the Cavs have offered Smith $42 million in guaranteed money over four years, and Cleveland.com reported the offer was worth between $10 million and $11 million. Cavs General Manager David Griffin and coach Tyronn Lue have both expressed this week how much Smith means to the Cavs.
“He was essential to our success,” Griffin said, “and for that reason we have made an incredibly competitive and aggressive offer in re-signing him.”
With a soaring payroll that will again place the Cavs more than $20 million above the luxury tax, they do not appear interested in bidding against themselves. Only five teams — the Brooklyn Nets, Phoenix Suns, Philadelphia 76ers, Denver Nuggets and Utah Jazz — have the necessary cap space to sign Smith. To this point, there hasn’t seemed to be much interest from either Smith or any of those teams in striking a deal.
Smith’s side is arguing that his value is evident. Thompson’s contract last summer was based off a projection of the type of player he was becoming and where the league’s salary cap was headed, but the argument this time is that Smith has more than proven his value. He made a career-high 204 3-pointers last season and shot 40 percent from behind the arc. And despite his spotty past, the only off-court headline Smith has made since joining the Cavs involved a late-night skirmish in New York. He was never charged in the case, however, and police closed the investigation.
One source indicated James’ frustration level with the Cavs is growing. Asked if he could foresee Smith leaving Cleveland, James likened the negotiation to buying a house.
“You can go find a house, you do all the negotiations and all that, but you never got the house until it’s closed and you got the keys,” he said. “Last minute someone can step in. Escrow could fall through or something. Then it ain’t your house no more. So, J.R. is a free agent. He’s not ours.
“It wouldn’t be good if he was not here. It wouldn’t be good for any side.”
Jason Lloyd can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Cavs blog at www.ohio.com/cavs. Follow him on Twitter www.twitter.com/JasonLloydABJ.