The questions regarding Josh Smith’s upcoming free agency have been in place for a long time, dating back over a year ago in anticipation of the 2012 trade deadline. That's partially because Smith’s age — 27 as he heads into free agency this summer — likely means he will be hitting his prime as an NBA player over the course of his next contract. Mostly, though, questions about his free-agent worth because we’re still not sure what type of player Smith is, nine (!) years into his NBA career.
He’s improved through the years, to be sure, but not to a superstar level despite superstar gifts. And though his shot selection, nearly a decade in, still makes you want to bang your head against the wall … is it possible that's due to the similar play-calling and coaching styles of Mike Woodson and Larry Drew? Does Smith merely need a change of stage? And what’s the deal with him going on record to declare himself worth a maximum contract?
ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne recently spoke with Smith for a very good feature. And she found a subject, because of his significant experience with this free-agent chatter, that was very clear and deliberate as he talked up why, exactly, he discusses his impending free agency the way he does.
"The question was asked to me, 'Do I feel like I'm a max player?'" Smith continued. "And I gave him an honest answer. I said, 'Yes I do.' And the reason why I say this, is because if you don't know your worth, who will? I can't set my standards low. If you set them low, that's how people are going to view you. Like when you sell a house, you don't sell the house for $2 million. You put the $5 million sticker on there … and then you work it out. You negotiate.
"Each interview is delicate. What you say or how you say it, at the end of the day they're not putting that recorder and letting the whole world listen to it," Smith said.
In a vacuum, without consideration of teammates or system or salary cap room, I would be hesitant to give Smith anything more than, say, a four-year, $32 million dollar deal. In comparing himself with players from his generation making max deals, Smith probably doesn’t (or shouldn’t) think of himself on the same level as a LeBron James or Dwight Howard, which would lead him and others to conclude that he shouldn’t be paid like them. NBA GMs have probably concluded the same thing. Unless they’re Billy King.
Smith isn’t going to share his conclusions on record, though, for (intelligent) reasons he stated above.
NBA GMs, though they know that giving their entire chunk of max-cap space over to a player like Smith, aren’t going to hold his feet to the fire (even in this economy, and with these new NBA salary cap rules) and give him that hypothetical four-year, $32 million deal. NBA teams with cap space tend to back themselves into striking while the iron is hot — which is why you see players like Ben Wallace heading to Chicago for a massive deal in 2006, or Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva using up Detroit’s cap space in 2009. Massive cap space only comes along so often, and it’s hard to sit out a summer knowing you could use it on a player you’ve probably already talked yourself into as a game-changer.
And several NBA teams could potentially have plenty of cap space for Smith to bargain with this summer.
The NBA’s best center and best point guard are going to be unrestricted free agents in July. This is an offseason to which no NBA summer has come close in the league’s free-agent history. Even in 2010, when wings like LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, and big forwards like Chris Bosh and Amar’e Stoudemire were on the market, that turn still didn’t compare to the top player at the NBA’s two (by far) most important positions being up for grabs.
Given other circumstances, every NBA website would have a clock ticking backward to the ringing of the free-agent bell this summer. Dwight Howard and Chris Paul are likely to stay with their current teams, though, during the offseason. Myriad personal factors go into this, but the ability to make more money with an incumbent team, and the relative potential each player has as a member of the Los Angeles Lakers or Los Angeles Clippers will create a confluence of events that will lead to a series of dropped jaws if these guys go elsewhere. And that’s not even getting into the off the court perks (read: living in Los Angeles).
This leaves Smith, who has yet to make an All-Star team, as perhaps the top prize on the market. A prize that, again, I’m not sure I would feel comfortable with making eight figures a year on a team I’d run. Smith’s all-around game is fantastic, but it’s often muddled by his obsession with long 2-pointers. He’s taken 270 of them so far this year, only making 30.7 percent of them along the way — all while making just over half his free throws on the year. If Smith has come so far in terms of negotiating tactics and touch with the media, why can’t he find a way to eschew a (long) shot he routinely takes, but makes less than one-third of the time?
The offseason approach, though, is a sound one. And Shelburne’s feature on Smith, including the details on where he’s come from and where he wants to end up, is very, very good.