The takes on the Rajon Rondo-to-Dallas trade weren’t even complete when that story was blown out of the water by today’s stunning news. The Detroit Pistons have waived forward Josh Smith, less than 18 months after signing him to a four year, $54 million contract.
While it is patently obvious that the Smith era in Detroit has not been a happy one, this move is nearly unprecedented in that Smith will be owed $27 million over the two seasons following this one, as well as more than $9 million outstanding this campaign. Rarely is a player waived when still owed so much money and with so much time left to run on their contract. Absent a forthcoming news bomb about specific malfeasance by Smith (as opposed to the run of the mill poor shot selection and questionable body language which has characterized much of Smith’s career), this represents a sizable own-goal by the new Stan Van Gundy regime. Van Gundy did not sign Smith to this contract – his predecessor Joe Dumars did – but Van Gundy was charged with the task of fixing it. And waiving him with so much money and time still owed is not really fixing it at all.
From a basketball-only standpoint, Van Gundy’s desire to be rid of Smith is understandable. Smith is a legendarily terrible outside shooter who cannot share the court with Detroit’s other two best players, Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond. Furthermore, Smith’s presence possibly stood in the way of Drummond’s continuing development, both in Detroit’s early season efforts to turn Drummond into a post player (which failed in somewhat predictable fashion) or in the more likely role of using him as a pick-and-roll bludgeon in the Tyson Chandler mold.
But this was not a purely basketball decision. By virtue of the NBA’s “stretch provision,” Smith will (if stretched) be due his fully guaranteed salary over the next five years rather than as a $13.5 million cap hit for each of the next two. In other words, the Pistons will be paying Smith $5.4 million per season to NOT play for them through the summer of 2020.
This is not “merely money”, the defense sometimes employed in situations such as when a coach is fired with years remaining on their contract either. These payments count on Detroit’s salary cap sheet for the same duration. In effect, the decision was made that jettisoning Smith right now was worth placing the franchise at a significant team building disadvantage for the rest of this decade. And that long term hindrance is at the heart of why the move is so confusing.
Even accepting Smith was hurting the team both this year and for the future, why now? Smith remains a talented player who, lest we forget, drew interest from at least one team this past offseason. The trade deadline is still almost two months away, and the Rondo trade was the first deal of any real consequence this season. Reports have Detroit canvassing for interest, but the question is, who was on those calls? The need to truly beat the bushes to find a suitable home for Smith, his baggage and his contract was the job for a full time general manager, something which the Pistons do not have with Van Gundy inhabiting both roles. Understandably, Van Gundy probably has enough on his plate that spending several hours per day trying to find a buyer AND coach a team already in turmoil wasn’t on the cards.
[It is hereby noted that one of Van Gundy’s first acts in his new role was to hire Jeff Bower, long time NBA executive, as the official General Manager of the team. However, ultimate power still lies with Van Gundy. And in this piece, outside of its official usage here for Bower, the terms general manager/GM are here used with their more colloquial meanings to mean whoever makes the ultimate roster decisions.]
Distinct individuals doing the job would have allowed the GM to spend that time, as well as manage Coach (rather than Executive) Van Gundy’s evident frustration with Smith. Rather than what looks like a premature overflow of frustration with no check between coach and GM duties, this would have allowed the team to use all the available time to move Smith along before exercising the nuclear options (and suffering the attendant long, dark winter to strain the metaphor). If on February 18th, nothing had come together, they would have least credibly explored remedies short of something this drastic.
What would be lost by waiting, aside from more games in what is already a lost season for the Pistons? The benefits of acting decisively this instant, today, are difficult to envision, aside from lessening Van Gundy’s irritation. But inability to manage and dampen a coach’s frustration with the roster is one of the main reasons to avoid entrusting one individual with both roles, and this seems yet another demonstration of the pitfalls of the arrangement.