It’s kind of hard to remember the last time a sitting chief of a pro basketball team basically came out and told the press that a potential free agent signee was bunko.
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It has happened this summer, though, and of course it was Phil Jackson that decided to make the call. In a very Phil Jackson-y way.
The New York Knicks president has allowed author and good buddy Charley Rosen to print his on-record musings from the 2014-15 season at ESPN, and in the latest installment Phil didn’t really hold much back in discussing J.R. Smith’s half-season impact on what turned into the Worst Knicks Team of All Time. Smith, whom Jackson traded to Cleveland midway through 2014-15, was discussed in less than glowing terms by the 13-time champion.
“J.R. had been exhibiting some delinquent behavior and had gotten into the habit of coming late to team meetings, or missing them altogether,” Jackson says. “Also, [Iman Shumpert] and Tim [Hardaway Jr.] were regressing, so I decided to meet with them separately and try to find out what, if anything, was bothering them.”
Smith was first on the list. “We talked about his statement to the press that our shooting guard depth was going to be the team’s asset, but so far it hadn’t worked out that way,” Jackson says. “He was supposed to carry the scoring load for the second unit and he wasn’t doing the job. I also said that because of his unacceptable behavior, he had two strikes against him with this team. He didn’t really respond. He’s a very sensitive guy, with his big doe eyes. He looked like he was going to tear up. But he finally responded that he was going through some issues with his gal.”
None of this is inaccurate, but you rarely see a guy in charge of an NBA team go on record like this. What’s even crazier is that this is from a discussion pitched during the winter, as Jackson had half a year to tell his pal Charley Rosen that, “nah, just leave the J.R. stuff out of it, he’s gonna be a free agent during the summer.”
Smith, after an up and down half-season with Cleveland, remains unsigned. This might not be due to basketball reasons …
… or ongoing “delinquent behavior,” but at this point in his career it’s hard to come up with a setting for Smith that he’d seem to thrive in happily and healthily.
This is the same guy that had to play in China during the NBA lockout in order to keep up on payments, this is the same man that admitted that living in Cleveland was a boon to his game because of the (relative, in comparison to New York) paucity of nightlife options, and he’s the same guy that dinged the 17-win Knicks after his team moved on to the expected Eastern Conference finals setting that most predicted for them prior to the season.
He’s also, refreshingly, honest. He and Phil have that in common.
Smith copped to playing like excrement on both ends during Cleveland’s Finals loss, thanking his teammates mid-series after they helped him overcome some bonehead plays as the Cavs stole home court advantage following a Game 2 win. J.R. shot just 24-77 in the Finals (31 percent), failing to be the sort of potent offensive weapon with Cleveland that Jackson hoped he would be in New York. This isn’t the first time Smith has let his team down in the playoffs (that would be two suspensions in three postseasons for Smith, on top of the poor shooting), but facing a seller’s market in free agency, he still opted out of his $6.4 million player option for 2015-16.
That seemed to be the right move at the time, as money was flowing freely and teams were bound to overcompensate as the stars settled into their expected homes, but Smith remains unsigned.
The issue here is that it is hard to come up with a sound setting for J.R. Smith at this point. What team, outside of Cleveland, would he be a good fit with? It’s possible that Smith would thrive under the peer pressure that systems in San Antonio or Golden State would provide, but those teams are set (thank you very much) and his isolation-heavy offensive game would not mesh well. Smith was a big part of what turned into a dominant Cavalier club down the stretch of the regular season, with LeBron James staring him down after every misstep, and yet the team isn’t bending over backward in order to retain him.
And then Phil Jackson has to step in.
Jackson, as you know, does not really give a rat’s tail about what goes on record. He inherited J.R. Smith, but he also expected him to play a professional strand of basketball and in that regard Smith failed him. Smith then acted like a prat in rubbing it in during May and even earlier in the season.
This is still a free agent looking for work, though. Even if the comments weren’t made on July 19, even if Phil was correct in his re-telling of things, this is just some atypical stuff.
Phil Jackson, with Charley Rosen, wrote a book entitled ‘Maverick’ that came out in 1975. In the book, Jackson relayed that an LSD trip enjoyed in Malibu during the 1973 playoffs not only helped enhance his spiritual understanding of the game, but pushed Jackson into acting as the needed interior bench force that pushed the Knicks into the franchise’s second (and last) NBA title.
The admission seems benign some 40 years later, but it was the singular reason why Jackson was left in the basketball wilderness for a heavy chunk of the 1980s before Jerry Krause and the Chicago Bulls brought him in as an assistant coach. The then-New Jersey Nets paid a hefty price (in the NBA’s territorial signing days, cash and picks that turned into Michael Ray Richardson and Vinnie Johnson) to sign Jackson as a free agent in 1978 and even made him an assistant coach, and yet it took seven years of Jackson wandering around the CBA and Puerto Rican leagues for the Bulls to hire the man on his second job interview in two years. Reportedly against then-coach Doug Collins’ wishes.
J.R. Smith’s basketball quest isn’t as noble. He was a sore winner in New York’s face two different times this year, and it was his decision to opt-out of a fair deal after shooting 31 percent in the Finals. There is absolutely no guarantee that Phil Jackson’s comments, confirming what most already knew, will have a measurable influence on his free agent turn.
We’re just not sure what to think of this. As it is with most things Phil Jackson does, this is unprecedented.
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