J.R. Smith wasn't the only NBA player who chose to play professional basketball overseas during the NBA lockout. But unlike Deron Williams and others who headed for Europe, Smith looked to the far east, even though the Chinese Basketball Association wouldn't allow NBA players to opt out once the lockout ended. A contract in China meant a long term commitment, well into the NBA season.
More: Chris Paul helping to recruit J.R. Smith to the Clippers
Smith and a few others (bizarrely, almost all of them former Denver Nuggets like Kenyon Martin and Wilson Chandler -- Aaron Brooks is the other prominent NBA player who signed in China) decided to take the plunge. The money was decent, and for awhile there as the Players' Association decertified, it seemed as if they'd made the right choice. But the lockout eventually ended, the prodigal Euros returned, and meanwhile Smith and the others were stuck in China.
But it's not all bad for J.R. He's eligible to return to the NBA at the conclusion of his Chinese team's season, and now that his Zhejiang Chouzhou Golden Bulls have been mathematically eliminated from the playoff picture, that return will be in just a few days on February 16. (Martin, who signed with the Clippers February 3, left China in December and was granted a Letter of Clearance by FIBA, the governing body of international basketball, to sign in the NBA before his team's season ended.) Because Smith is the only unrestricted free agent of note who is available at this point, he will be in high demand and can pick his destination. The downside is that none of the attractive destinations have significant money to spend -- but J.R. made some money in China, and if he's smart he's looking at his team for the rest of the NBA season as an audition for his next big NBA contract.
The Clippers have expressed a strong interest in signing Smith, and judging from his twitter account, he has an interest in the Clippers as well. Even before Chauncey Billups was lost for the season with a torn Achilles tendon, the Clippers were interested in Smith to fill their need for a big shooting guard to match up with the Kobe Bryants and Joe Johnsons of the league. Now that Billups is out, that need becomes more acute -- but the Clippers also become more attractive as a destination, as Smith would be the new starter at the two.
The Clippers aren't the only team pursuing Smith of course. Both the Knicks and the Lakers are interested in signing the swingman, and there are no doubt other suitors. Smith will be looking for a combination of factors in deciding his destination: a significant role, a chance to win, and money.
The Knicks still have their mini-mid level exception ($2.5M) left to spend, and so can offer more money than either the Clippers or Lakers, who can only offer the veteran's minimum of about a million. The Knicks can also offer him a big role in their depleted backcourt, but depending on where you stand on Jeremy Lin, they may not be able to offer a lot in the way of wins.
The Lakers certainly need scoring help off the bench, which Smith could provide in droves -- but as it happens, the Lakers already have a pretty good player at Smith's natural shooting guard position, and playing both Kobe and J.R. Smith together might not be the best idea, assuming the game is still played with just the one basketball.
The Clippers could offer Smith the starting shooting guard position, and given that he shores up the team's biggest remaining weakness, they could also offer him a very real chance to advance deep into the postseason.
Chris Paul has taken the lead for the Clippers in recruiting Smith -- the two of them were teammates Paul's rookie season with the Hornets and remain close. Smith would also be reunited with former Nuggets teammates Reggie Evans, Martin and Billups, though only in the locker room in Billups' case of course. And while Smith has been considered immature and problematic at times in his NBA career, the presumption is that with strong veteran leadership on the team, especially Paul and Billups, it won't be an issue keeping Smith in line.
The conventional wisdom is that J.R.'s choice will come down to the Knicks or the Clippers. If he wants more money, he'll wind up in New York. If he wants more wins, he'll wind up in LA. Either way, he should be making his decision soon.