|Is it down to the Knicks or Clippers for J.R. Smith? (Getty Images)|
There appeared to be two finalists in the recruitment of unrestricted free agent guard J.R. Smith, and one seems to have emerged..
Smith, recently returned from China where he signed to play during the lockout without an NBA opt-out clause, had reportedly narrowed his final two choices to the New York Knicks and the Los Angeles Clippers, according to ESPNLA.com.
The New York Daily News reported that the Knicks have emerged as the leaders.
The Knicks are closing in on a deal to sign free agent shooting guard J.R. Smith, the Daily News has learned. Smith began the season in China, but has been eyeing a return to the NBA once the lockout ended.Other teams linked to Smith over the last few weeks have included the Orlando Magic, Indiana Pacers, Minnesota Timberwolves and Los Angeles Lakers, among others.
Smith's agent, Leon Rose, met with Garden Chairman James Dolan following Wednesday's Knicks' win over Sacramento to finalize a contract.
Smith has connections with both the Knicks and the Clippers, and both have expressed serious interest in his services. New York has Smith's former teammate with the Denver Nuggets, All-Star forward Carmelo Anthony, as well as his former Nuggets boss, Mark Warkentien, a noted advocate of Smith's game. Los Angeles has Smith's former New Orleans Hornets teammate Chris Paul as well as his former Nuggets teammate Kenyon Martin, himself recently returned from China.
Given the unusual timing of his clearance from China, Smith's financial options are limited. New York is able to offer him a $2.5 million room exception; the Clippers are limited to the veteran's minimum. More important than the dollar figure for the remainder of the 2011-2012 season is his ability to play on a large stage. Playing big minutes and getting plenty of shots for a playoff team will help maximize his value for a big free agency pay day this summer.
Smith averaged 12.3 points, 4.1 rebounds, 2.2 assists and 1.2 steals in 24.9 minutes per game off of Denver's bench during the 2010-2011 season. At 26, he is entering his prime earning years as a player. Even though his 2011-2012 season will only be a few months long, it will be an important stretch for him to re-introduce himself to the NBA's chief decision-makers to ensure he receives the pay day he is eventually expecting.
In New York, he would fill out a backcourt rotation that includes global sensation Jeremy Lin, global non-sensation Baron Davis, rookie Iman Shumpert and Toney Douglas. There should be plenty of minutes available there, and Lin's orchestration of New York's offense recently offers some promise that Smith can find his touches too. That group, coupled with All-Stars in Anthony and Amar'e Stoudemire, plus Tyson Chandler in the middle, could potentially win a playoff series.
In Los Angeles, the presence of Paul guarantees he will get touches, and a season-ending injury to Chauncey Billups opens up all the minutes he can handle. He would join Paul, Mo Williams and Randy Foye in what would be a very solid rotation. Whether or not the Clippers add Smith, they expect to make a deep playoff run this year.
Either way, Smith really can't lose.