The Josh Smith Waiver: One Year Later

The Pistons stunned the NBA a year ago today when they waived Josh Smith less than a year and a half after signing him to a four-year, $54MM contract. It wasn’t altogether surprising in a basketball sense, as Smith, Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond represented an antiquated jumbo frontcourt that ran counter to the league’s prevailing small-ball philosophy, but no one would have guessed the team would have taken such a measure because of the amount of money owed to Smith. The stretch provision helps ease that burden, or at least makes it more manageable on a year-to-year basis, but it also means the Pistons will be paying Smith through the year 2020.

We’re looking back at Smith’s release one year after it happened to see how it affected the Pistons, Smith, and the leaguewide use of the stretch provision:

The effect on the Pistons:

Stan Van Gundy, little more than seven months into his first job as an NBA front office executive, pulled off a remarkably bold maneuver, and the results have proven it a wise move. It didn’t take too long for many to anoint Van Gundy a genius as the Pistons, 5-23 when they released Smith, immediately ripped off seven straight wins. They won 12 of their first 15 games after the move, but Brandon Jennings suffered a torn Achilles tendon in their next outing, and they went only 15-24 the rest of the way. The Jennings injury goaded the Pistons into trading for Reggie Jackson, though the merits of that deal, and the subsequent five-year, $80MM free agent contract the Pistons bestowed upon him this past summer, are only indirectly related to Smith.

The Smith move, and specifically the use of the stretch provision to spread his salary, had a much more attributable effect on the team’s trades for Ersan Ilyasova and Marcus Morris and signing of Aron Baynes. Each of those acquisitions required a sizable chunk of cap space, aided by the extra $8.1MM in flexibility the absence of Smith afforded them. Morris, a former lottery pick, is averaging career highs in points, rebounds and assists in his first season as a full-time starter. Ilyasova is the starting power forward and nailing an un-Smith-like 37.3% of his 3-point attempts. Baynes is the backup center and has helped offset the loss of Monroe. Jettisoning Smith didn’t keep Monroe from bolting Detroit in free agency this past summer, but it became apparent last season that almost nothing could. The departures of Smith and Monroe allow the Pistons to embody Van Gundy’s four-out, one-in philosophy, and the team’s 16-12 start represents its best 28-game record since the 2008/09 season, which is also the last time Detroit made the playoffs.

The effect on Josh Smith:

No one was going to claim Smith’s outsized contract off waivers, but once he cleared, he already had a destination lined up, having chosen to sign with former AAU teammate Dwight Howard and the Rockets for the full value of the $2.077MM biannual exception, an amount only marginally above the minimum salary. Of course, Smith didn’t have much choice, since most teams don’t carry cap space into the season, and the money only went on top of what the Pistons still owed him, minus a small amount Detroit recouped via set-off rights. Smith accepted a backup role in Houston, where the Rockets decided to use him mostly at power forward and occasionally as a small-ball center, rather than shoehorn him into small forward, where the Pistons often played him and where he no longer fits in the modern game. He shot more 3-pointers per contest in Houston’s perimeter-oriented offense, but he made a respectable 33.0% of them in the regular season and a proficient 38.0% in the playoffs. It all appeared to click as Smith and the Rockets made it to the Western Conference Finals, and they reportedly had mutual interest in a new deal.

However, the Rockets decided to stay above the cap this past summer, sharply limiting their financial flexibility with Smith, on whom they had only Non-Bird rights. That left them without much ammo to hold off the Clippers, whom Smith found attractive enough to sign with for only the minimum salary. He drew ridicule for overstating the gravity of the monetary sacrifice, but it was nonetheless a deal below market value and one that cost the Pistons a greater return on their continuing obligation to him via set off. In any case, the move hasn’t paid off for either Smith or the Clippers, as he’s averaging career lows in points and minutes per game and has regressed to 31.5% 3-point shooting. The team reportedly gauged the interest that other clubs have in trading for him, though coach/executive Doc Rivers denied doing so. It’s getting worse, though. The 6’9″ Smith, whom the Clippers are using primarily as the backup to DeAndre Jordan at center, took a DNP-CD on Monday, and Rivers indicated that he’ll keep Cole Aldrich as the backup center instead of Smith going forward, as Eric Pincus of the Los Angeles Times notes (All Twitter links).

The effect on the stretch provision:

The conventional wisdom would hold that given the revival of the Pistons and the struggles of Smith, more teams would see fit to use the stretch provision, even if they don’t use it in such drastic circumstances. That remains to be seen going forward, but in the year since the Smith waiver, teams have appeared more hesitant to use the stretch provision, at least as measured by the activity around August 31st, a key deadline. That’s the last day that salary for the upcoming season may be spread out. The fact that the Pistons waived Smith after August 31st last year is why his full salary — minus the set off amount — counted against the cap last season. Teams used the stretch provision on four players at the end of August 2014, but it didn’t come into play at all as the deadline approached in August 2015. Still, it’s conceivable that Detroit’s use of the stretch provision inspired the Bucks to do the same with the money they still owed Larry Sanders, who gave up $21,935,296 of his $44MM extension in a February buyout. The length of Sanders’ deal was such that the Bucks were able to cut their obligation to him into $1,865,546 segments they’re set to pay each year for seven years after giving him $9,005,882 last season.

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