The Los Angeles Clippers are one of a handful of teams vying for free-agent guard J.R. Smith, who will be eligible to return to the NBA on Wednesday after his Chinese team's season concludes, according to a source with knowledge of the team's thinking.
The Clippers were interested in Smith even before the season-ending injury to Chauncey Billups last week, believing they could use more offensive firepower off the bench. That was going to be a harder sell to Smith, who is looking for a larger role. Now, they can offer Smith the opportunity to start.
Like Billups did with recently-signed Kenyon Martin, point guard Chris Paul has taken a lead role in recruiting Smith, according to the source. The two are close from their two seasons as teammates with the Hornets.
Also like Billups and Martin, who are both represented by agent Andy Miller, Paul and Smith both are represented by agent Leon Rose. That would seem like an advantage, except for the fact that Rose also represents New York Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony, who said this week he'd be happy to have his former Nuggets teammate join him in New York.
"Yeah, I think so, he's one of those type of players," Anthony told a small group of reporters after the Knicks' win over the Nets last weekend. "If it happens, it happens and I'll be happy."
The Knicks are the presumed favorite to land Smith because they can offer him both a large role on the team, and their pro-rated $2.5 million mini mid-level exception. Exceptions are only pro-rated after Feb. 10, so Smith wouldn't be losing much. Most of the other teams reportedly interested in him, like the Lakers or Clippers, can only offer him a veteran minimum contract, which would be pro-rated from the beginning of the season.
While the financial difference is distinct, it won't be huge (roughly $1.5 million depending on when Smith signs), making the choice more about which organization Smith wants to set himself up with in the future, and where he'd have the best chance to showcase himself the rest of the season.
Smith has been playful about his intentions, responding to fans of the Knicks, Heat, Lakers and Clippers via his Twitter feed for the last few weeks.
Although the Clipper fans interacting with Smith on Twitter might seem a bit desperate, the team feels it has multiple options for addressing the hole left by Billups.
The Clippers have two trade exceptions from the Paul trade -- one for approximately $3.9 million another for approximately $ 2.8 million -- that they could use to trade for an upgrade or depth at either shooting guard or small forward. Starting small forward Caron Butler can defend either shooting guards or small forwards.
If they miss on Smith, the Clippers would likely wait until after March 1 to actively pursue trades, the source said. March 1 is when players who signed as free agents in the offseason can be traded.
By then, Billups should almost be recovered enough from his surgery to travel with the team and help provide the gravitas and leadership that became so valuable to the team in the first two months of the season. It'll be from the bench, however.
Ramona Shelburne is a reporter and columnist for ESPNLosAngeles.com.