When asked last week what areas his team might target while finalizing roster construction, Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens said, “Shooting is always going to be a priority.”
The bad news for Boston: The remaining free-agent crop is thin on proven shooters. But there is one particularly polarizing name available: J.R. Smith.
ESPN Insider’s Kevin Pelton recently ranked Smith the No. 1 remaining free agent and, while addressing his market, wrote: “The question is whether Smith can find a suitor to force the Cavaliers to pay him what he wants. He doesn’t really make a lot of sense for any of the teams with significant cap space remaining, though if the Boston Celtics renounce the rights to Tyler Zeller they could offer Smith a one-year deal worth nearly $12 million to supply shooting they need.”
You can probably guess how most Celtics fans reacted: Michael Scott “No!” GIFs and pleas to a higher power requesting the team abstain from pursuing Smith.
But is the idea of chasing Smith really that absurd?
Boston has an obvious need for shooting, and everyone in the organization has been looking for more impact talent. The move would weaken a primary Eastern Conference rival. The Celtics wouldn’t mortgage any of their future flexibility with a short-term deal. And exec Danny Ainge would gain a golfing buddy.
For all his warts, Smith is coming off a season in which he hit 40 percent of the whopping 510 3-pointers he hoisted. Smith averaged 1.014 points per play last season (a fraction of a point behind the likes of Jimmy Butler and James Harden) and ranked in the 83rd percentile among all NBA players, according to Synergy Sports data.
Yes, there are obvious reasons to be leery. Smith doesn’t fit Stevens’ defense-first mantra (suggestions that he dedicated himself defensively last season are exaggerated at best); he would bite into minutes for younger players; and there’s always chemistry to consider (in the 2015 playoffs, Smith swung his arm while boxing out and knocked down Celtics forward Jae Crowder, and no apology was ever issued).
It ultimately comes down to how comfortable Boston feels with its current roster, and any other moves the team might make before the regular season arrives. The team was hopeful that youngsters like second-year guard R.J. Hunter and third-year swingman James Young might emerge as rotation-caliber shooters, but Hunter is still a work in progress and Young had another lackluster summer that suggests he’s unlikely to make a leap.
The Celtics have quality depth at the guard spot with All-Star point guard Isaiah Thomas and NBA All-Defensive Team first-teamer Avery Bradley in the starting lineup. There are high hopes for third-year guard Marcus Smart, and second-year guard Terry Rozier had an excellent summer and should find a rotation role.
In order to pursue Smith, the Celtics would have to pull their qualifying offer from restricted free agent Zeller, who is Pelton’s fifth-best available free agent. Alas, Zeller logged 25 DNPs last season, including in three of Boston’s six playoff games. His role remains murky at best moving forward.
The Celtics have preserved as much cap space as possible in their quest to add more talent. With some roster shuffling, the team could potentially get in the ballpark of Smith’s reported desire for $15 million next season. That’s a monster salary, but Boston could carry it for a season while preserving flexibility to pursue bigger fish next summer.
Even if Boston didn’t land Smith, there could be a benefit to simply forcing the Cavaliers to endure a more bloated cap number if they want to retain Smith. The defending champs seem in no rush to re-sign the 30-year-old, and until he has other offers to consider, why would they be?