Why the Pistons waived Josh Smith, and what could happen next

Ball Don't Lie
Josh Smith averaged 1.2 laughs per month as a Detroit Piston (Getty Images)

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Josh Smith averaged 1.2 laughs per month as a Detroit Piston (Getty Images)

It was a massive surprise until you truly thought it out. The Detroit Pistons waived Josh Smith on Monday using the NBA’s stretch provision, a collective bargaining agreement complement that allows you to dump a player without having to see the full amount of his salary weighted against your salary-cap totals at the originally signed-for yearly rates.

Smith had disappointed terribly in his two seasons with the Pistons, as was his gradual decline over his last season in Atlanta. Former Pistons general manager Joe Dumars, in last-ditch attempt to turn around his team’s lacking fortunes via the free agent market, whiffed on signing Smith to a four-year, $54 million contract in the summer of 2013 despite scads of information that would tell you that a giant frontcourt featuring Smith, power forward Greg Monroe, and center Andre Drummond absolutely would not work.

It was the last straw that cost Dumars his job, as the triptych predictably struggled. New Pistons coach and overall personnel boss Stan Van Gundy decided on giving Josh one last shot over his first offseason, which likely had less to do with his thoughts on Smith’s potential and more to do with the asset-less trade offers he was proposed for Smith. Just seven weeks into the season, however, Van Gundy has had enough.

From the Pistons’ press release:

"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," said Stan Van Gundy, Head Coach and President of Basketball Operations for the Detroit Pistons. "We are shifting priorities to aggressively develop our younger players while also expanding the roles of other players in the current rotation to improve performance and build for our future. As we expand certain roles, others will be reduced. In fairness to Josh, being a highly versatile 10-year veteran in this league, we feel it's best to give him his freedom to move forward. We have full respect for Josh as a player and a person."

Nobody thought the Pistons a surefire Conference contender, but there was some hope that competent coaching by Van Gundy could result in a possible playoff hopeful. The 5-23 team has disappointed, though, and though Smith was the team’s second-leading scorer at 13.1 a game, he needed 14 shots to get there.

I mean, look:

(Courtesy NBA.com)
(Courtesy NBA.com)


 

(Courtesy NBA.com)
(Courtesy NBA.com)

This falls right in line with some of Smith’s weaker years in Atlanta. He remains obsessed with utilizing a perimeter stroke that he just doesn’t own, continually forgetting that his best season in the NBA – 2009-10 – saw him take just seven three-pointers. Several, if not all of those, were buzzer-beating chucks from around half court at the end of quarters and halves. That’s not apocryphal: I watched ‘em.

Because Smith was waived after the Sep. 1 stretch provision deadline, he’ll take in the full $13.5 million he’s owed this year, and the stretched-out payments won’t start until next season – at $5.4 million a year stretched out over five years. Should Smith sign with another team this season, a virtual certainty despite his terrible play, the Pistons will be on the hook for whatever the chasm is between his new team’s salary and his guaranteed Piston money. The same goes for this offseason and beyond, when Smith could presumably sign a long-term deal with another squad.

This isn’t like football, though, where coaches and front offices lord over players with the possibility that one false move could be their last as a member of the team. This also isn’t some hardass maneuver by Van Gundy, meant to shake Smith’s teammates – rather, this was a salary dump. The Pistons can only use the stretch provision once under the current CBA (which expires in 2017). Nobody else will fear reprisal after this. Or, at least they shouldn’t be.

Josh Smith is still going to get paid. He may sign somewhere else for a minimum contract, but the Pistons will pick up the difference between that relatively paltry number and the $13.5 million he’s set to make this year. He’ll get paid to leave a 5-23 team full of players and coaches that didn’t want to work with him, and he’ll have the pick of the litter amongst teams that swear they’ll be the first to truly make Josh Smith the sort of player his potential suggests.

Whether or not that would serve as a fool’s errand is up for debate. Who would be those sorts of teams, though?

The Sacramento Kings would appear to be eagerly in on the action. They’ve long coveted Smith even at his current price per year, for whatever reason, and the Pistons turned down a package of expiring contracts in exchange for Smith last summer, as the sometimes-stubborn and always-competitive Stan Van Gundy thought he could be the one to finally turn Smith’s career around. How Smith’s similarly-sized game would fit into another wannabe (if far more successful) sometimes-stretch forward in Rudy Gay remains to be seen.

Smith would seem at home on a running team that loves to toss up lob after lob, but though Josh hasn’t played with a litany of brilliant transition passers in his career, the great frustration is that he hasn’t molded his game after Shawn Marion in attempting to leak out on the break without a second thought. Some of the fastest-paced teams in the NBA – Philadelphia, Minnesota, Boston, Denver, the Lakers – are also its worst, and the lack of interest is probably mutual.

Would the fastest squad in the league, the NBA-topping Golden State Warriors, want to upset team chemistry in a last ditch effort to save Smith’s career? Starting power forward Draymond Green is a team, coaching staff and fan favorite. Last year’s starter, the often-beleaguered David Lee, returns to action on Monday. Lee’s game has its holes, but he’s also a fantastic shooter from outside and remains the pick and roll popper that Smith never developed into.

It would be tempting for teams in Portland or Memphis (both working with injured members of their frontcourts) to take a chance on Smith, but his history might be too much to stomach. The Los Angeles Clippers tax apron may prevent them from being competitive in any offer (and Smith really shouldn’t be shoe-horned into the small forward slot again), and most Eastern squads probably have other interests.

The Rockets are interested, and Smith is a longtime pal of franchise center Dwight Howard, but Josh’s shot selection would seem to be an anathema to the Rockets’ front office and coaching staff. There is also the chance that a team like the Rockets could take a minimum-sized chance on Smith before relegating him to the deep bench should he choose not to change his ways; but that would come after a few months of terrible shooting from the forward in a competitive conference that can’t afford to blink.

For the Pistons, the motivation is clear. The team whiffed on signing him and the new regime whiffed on trading him for spare parts, and it’s true they’ll have to pay through the teeth for him to go away – but the Pistons were also faced with having to deal a first round pick (as Joe Dumars did in trading fellow free agent signee Ben Gordon years ago) away just to get rid of Smith. That wasn’t happening.

Detroit will pay Smith a good chunk of change yearly until 2020; however, with the new TV blowing the NBA’s salary cap up extensively starting in 2016, the hit won’t be as damaging later on. The team’s cap space this summer might be overstated a bit, as cap holds and Andre Drummond’s impending contract extension will get in the way, but there will be some room there.

We hope for the best for Josh Smith and his talents, but at age 29 and with over a decade of NBA employment under his belt, it’s hard to expect a few new tricks. Whatever team decides to experiment with him next, at any price, will likely result in an equal-part fascinating and frustrating watch.

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Kelly Dwyer is an editor for Ball Don't Lie on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at KDonhoops@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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