- Marc Stein, ESPN Senior Writer
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DALLAS -- The New York Knicks are the presumptive favorites to sign free-agent swingman J.R. Smith when he returns from China later this week, but Los Angeles Clippers guard Chris Paul likes his team's chances of convincing Smith to take less money to sign with it.
"I think our chances are very high," Paul said Monday night after the Clippers' 96-92 loss to the Dallas Mavericks.
Smith recently announced via his Twitter feed that he expects to be back in the States by Wednesday. Although the Knicks can offer a prorated share of the $2.5 million mini-midlevel exception for the rest of the season, whereas L.A. can't pay more than the veteran minimum, Paul believes the presence of three of Smith's former teammates on the Clippers' roster and the minutes and shots opened up by the season-ending Achilles injury suffered by Chauncey Billups will be strong lures.
"Who knows J.R. better than me?" Paul said of Smith, his teammate for two seasons with the Hornets.
Referring to Kenyon Martin and Billups, both of whom played with Smith in Denver, Paul attributes his optimism to "my relationship with J.R., Kenyon's relationship with him and Chauncey's relationship with him."
"Also he knows he'll have the opportunity to play here," Paul said. "He can only make us better."
ESPNLosAngeles.com's Ramona Shelburne reported Sunday that the Clippers were interested in Smith even before Billups' injury last week, believing they could use more offensive firepower off the bench. But that was going to be a tougher sell with the Knicks so desperate for shooters to play alongside Carmelo Anthony, Amare Stoudemire and the fast-emerging Jeremy Lin.
Without Billups, though, L.A. is suddenly offering a larger role that could offset the Knicks' financial edge. The choice could thus come down to where Smith thinks he has the best chance to showcase himself for the rest of the season after signing in China during the lockout.
The challenge for the Clippers is that Smith is also being recruited hard by Anthony, another former Nuggets teammate who, like Smith and Paul, is represented by agent Leon Rose. Smith has been playful about his intentions, frequently responding to fans of the Knicks, Heat, Lakers and Clippers via his Twitter feed in the days leading up to the end of his Chinese season.
One source close to the situation told ESPN.com that the Indiana Pacers -- who possess more salary-cap space to spend than any other team in the league at present -- and the Minnesota Timberwolves have expressed a level of interest in Smith.
If the Knicks win out, it's believed that the Clippers will try to capitalize on their two trade exceptions created in the blockbuster deal in December that brought them Paul to acquire another shooting guard or small forward. The exceptions are valued at just less than $4 million and $3 million respectively. Shelburne reported Sunday that the Clippers, in that scenario, would likely wait until after March 1 to actively pursue trades, when more than 100 players who signed new contracts in December become eligible to be traded.
Senior writer Marc Stein covers the NBA for ESPN.com.
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