The Pistons’ decision to waive Josh Smith outright is one of the craziest events in modern NBA history. Smith had $40.5 million guaranteed to him over the next three years at the time of his release. The “stretch” provision will allow Detroit to space out that cap hit over a longer frame, but the underlying move is unprecedented all the same. Players this good who are owed that much money never hit the open market in this fashion. Yet Pistons president and head coach Stan Van Gundy made the move he thought his team needed, peculiarity be damned. The man has nerve.
“Our team has not performed the way we had expected throughout the first third of the season and adjustments need to be made in terms of our focus and direction,” Van Gundy said in an official team release.
Let’s be clear on a related matter: Josh Smith, as any half-conscious NBA fan can attest, has not been good in Detroit. He’s a player of attractive skills who came to align too deeply with his worst habits, at least in part because he spent much of his Pistons career playing out of position. It can now be said without a sliver of a doubt that Smith is not a wing. Small forward may have worked out for him early in his career, but at this stage Smith makes far more sense playing big – where his defense, rebounding, and interior passing are more readily applicable – than small. Van Gundy even articulated as much in his earliest days on the job in Detroit, though his intentions to anchor in Smith as a power forward were unsettled by injury elsewhere on the roster.
Smith responded with a true shooting percentage (.417) far worse than the career-worst he posted last season (.463), which would be impressive if it weren’t so sad. Defensive effort wasn’t always a given for Smith, either, as Detroit’s collective level of commitment has sunk with each step down to its current 5-23 record. This roster should not be this bad. Van Gundy understands that, and in a sense the decision to release Smith makes that clear. This move was a display of power by a coach/executive who prioritized that power in taking this job. It was an act of desperation by a team that did what it could to unload Smith but balked at the price. It was also an exorcism of sorts for a franchise that needs it, with Smith representing at least some of its demons.
Detroit clearly believes it will be better off in not having Smith around and may well be right. That it swallowed $40.5 million in debt to prove the point, though, is nothing short of bananas. And, just to add another layer of insanity to this episode: Smith, the power forward, will and should be an attractive commodity on the open market. The process of his release is this: Smith will spend 48 hours on waivers, in which any team with the necessary cap space/exceptions to absorb Smith’s $13.5 million salary this season can make a claim to pick up the remainder of his contract. The only such team is Philadelphia, which would be foolish to do so. From that point Smith would be an unrestricted free agent free to sign with the team of his choosing.
Many front offices will want to do their own digging first, as would make sense given the unique terms of his departure from Detroit. Once the homework is done, however, Smith can expect a fair bit of interest. Some teams will stay away out of protection of their current chemistry, others for fear of Smith as a specific fit. Many others will find room to at least explore the option of adding a versatile power forward with the ability to protect the rim. Smith is a real talent capable of catalytic play under the right circumstances. At this point he just needs to find them – not unlike Boris Diaw, who also became an impromptu free agent upon his release from the Bobcats in 2012.
Here are a few potential landing spots for Smith:
One of the best, most plausible options for Smith in respect to potential role and salary. Houston is the rare contender that can offer Smith more than the minimum; the biannual exception is still in play for the Rockets, giving them a $2.1 million window to work with if they so choose. Whether the difference between that value and the veteran minimum (which for Smith would be valued at around $1.5 million) is enough to lure Smith (who will already make $13.5 million this season, mind you) is an open question. Regardless, the opportunity to contend in the West alongside Dwight Howard and James Harden makes for a hell of a sweetener.
One of the more unpredictable franchises in the league has made its interest in Smith quite clear, no matter the weird potential fit of a Rudy Gay-Smith-DeMarcus Cousins frontcourt. Selling Smith on the concept could get tricky. Not only are the Kings a few tiers below some other teams with apparent interest, but they don’t have the exceptions or cap room to pitch much of immediate interest in Sacramento. Enthusiasm alone pushes the Kings into the conversation. From there, however, owner Vivek Ranadive and general manager Pete D’Alessandro need to offer Smith something he can’t find elsewhere.
Now that the best offensive team in the league has made a calculated gamble with the acquisition of Rajon Rondo, what’s another? If Smith investigates the market for the minimum, Dallas could be intriguing. He isn’t the kind of quick decision-maker Dallas likes, but – as with Rondo – there’s a case to be made for talent over fit if some of the negatives in play can be controlled. The Mavericks have the coaching and personnel to manage that much, though with their current roster makeup Smith would be relegated to backup minutes across the frontcourt. Would he be comfortable playing center behind Tyson Chandler? Would there be enough minutes in play for Smith without having him spell Chandler Parsons at small forward? Smith’s landing in Dallas is plausible, but there’s plenty to sort out.
The Clippers need Smith, or more simply need another functional player to fill out the frontcourt. Yet their need in this case can manifest neither in terms of role or compensation. There’s no chance of Smith snaring a starting spot over Blake Griffin at power forward. Then on the financial side, a Clippers team bumping up against the hard cap will have nothing more to offer than the minimum. Maybe neither is much of a concern for Smith, but the competition for his services will likely offer better in both regards.
The fact that Smith is dramatically better than Carlos Boozer should get the Lakers on the phone, though the appeal here beyond Los Angeles would be slim to none. There isn’t much logic in leaving a losing team to join another that loses only slightly less, particularly when the latter revolves around a star who insists on taking whatever shot he wants. There may be minutes for Smith on the Lakers, but no real opportunity.
Worthy of mention here as one of the few cap space teams remaining in the league. This has been an odd season for the Suns, who haven’t been able to hit their rhythm consistently enough this season to keep in line with the West’s top eight. Smith wouldn’t do anything to help the team’s wobbly chemistry and might displace Markieff Morris in the starting lineup, but in terms of base talent and skill he could help Phoenix to round out its operation. This is a team that could use some help in its contention for the playoffs, and in that endeavor Smith may be of some real assistance.