This could be a decisive week for both the Pistons and the Bobcats. Mere moments before trade season ends, the two teams will spend this trade twilight together in a pair of unfortunately intimate arenas. Only a half a game separates the two teams in the standings, and this week could decide more than just the standings, but each team's trajectory in the years to come. Charlotte has risen, but since sputtered, on the back of Al Jefferson, and Detroit has floundered, quite famously, on the back of a poor-fitting Josh Smith. This two-day tango has trade written all over it, and it just so happens that both teams have precisely what the other team needs so sorely.
This week, the Charlotte Bobcats should make an offer to the Detroit Pistons for Josh Smith, and Detroit's interest should be financial, with very little else in return. Such a move would immediately give Charlotte one of the most productive two-way frontcourt pairings in the Eastern Conference, and it would give Detroit the opportunity to properly build around its strengths this summer. It's a rare and clearly defined win for both teams, and if you're not as certain about that as I am, allow me to persuade you.
Charlotte's Needs and Josh Smith's Fit
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In 2013, Rich Cho and the Bobcats might have netted the free agent coup of the summer in Al Jefferson. Jefferson signed for just over $40M, immediately placing Charlotte in the playoff conversation for 2014. Jefferson is a gifted frontcourt scorer, one of the rare and versatile low-post scorers with a knack for rebounding. He's one of a few 20/10 players in the league, and his only obvious drawback is his production on the defensive end. If properly complemented, Jefferson could be a key player on a second round playoff team. And no team jumps to title contention without being a genuine second round threat.
The problem with Jefferson is that he's never been adequately complemented. He played next to
Carlos Boozer in Utah [correction, that was a young Paul Millsap even in the early years, quite a defensive upgrade] and Kevin Love in Minnesota, neither of which are even close to the type of player that Jefferson needs to be paired with. Jefferson needs a defensive specialist at power forward, a guy who can defend the other team's best post scorer in either frontcourt position and thereby neutralize Jefferson's most pronounced weakness. This guy also can't be a complete zero on offense. If opposing teams don't have to worry about this defensive specialist scoring, they can feel free to double team Jefferson as often as they like. And "double-team Jefferson" is likely listed atop the opposing team's scouting reports when arriving in Charlotte.
There is a perfect complement for Al Jefferson, the guy who can help neutralize Al's defensive weaknesses and help bear the scoring burden he's carrying, preventing those ugly double teams. That guy is Josh Smith, and given Detroit's struggles since Smith joined the team, Charlotte is in a position to name their price to acquire him. Doing so would allow Charlotte to keep their young assets and build one of the few productive two-way frontcourts in the league. Now, in theory this pairing sounds excellent, right? In practice, Smith's play this season leaves a lot to be desired.
Josh Smith's Poor Fit in Detroit
Josh Smith's poor fit in Detroit has been well-wrought this season. On July 6th, the day Smith signed with the Pistons, I wrote a few thousand words about how the signing was a mistake, and many of the 1,300 comments on the article thought I was pretty crazy. It wasn't hard to predict how things would turn out in Detroit, where Smith would be asked to play out-of-position and rely largely on his areas of weakness. Next to Detroit's very unique frontcourt of Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe, the Pistons would need Smith to shoot a lot of three pointers and long twos, both of which were the most damaging aspects of his game.
Naturally, as hinted in that article and my player preview for Greg Monroe this season, the conversation would shift to trading Monroe to allow Smith to play his natural position of power forward. Yet unlike Charlotte, who has Al Jefferson's versatile and effective post offense at center, Smith would be playing next to Andre Drummond in Detroit. Drummond is about as raw as it comes on offense, he's only 20-years-old and by the time he has the experience to make noise in the playoffs, Smith will have aged out of his contract and his athletic ability. Meanwhile, Monroe is in the same age range, they'll share peak ages together, and both can be locked down for the foreseeable future on restricted free agent contracts.
In terms of Detroit's future, making moves to suit Smith would be a mistake, and the team would be mortgaging tomorrow to win today, and it's franchise player isn't ready for that yet. So unfortunately, the only clear path forward is to part with the player they just signed, and they can't expect to gain much in the transaction. Detroit should be interested in one thing only with a trade involving Smith-- anything that improves their financial flexibility in the years to come. Smith's contract is not bad in a vacuum, but it is dead money in Detroit, money committed to a player that duplicates strengths the team already has, and occupies a position that needs a skill set he can't provide.
The Cap Cost of Acquiring Josh Smith
Before we look at what it would take to acquire Josh Smith by trade, let's get a sense of the context of Smith in Charlotte and the opportunity cost of acquiring him. First, let's imagine that Charlotte has a free agent windfall this summer and a hole at power forward next to Jefferson. Okay, no need to imagine that-- it's a pretty accurate characterization of the situation. Sure, Charlotte may have other fish to fry, but a clear and immediate upgrade at power forward would certainly suit the team.
To explore the context of Josh Smith in Charlotte, let's pretend Smith is a free agent and Charlotte has $18M in cap space this summer. Would Charlotte avoid the stars of free agency and instead opt for an eight figure annual salary to a productive older veteran? That's precisely what Charlotte did last summer. This summer, in this exercise, Charlotte could give what equates to a 3-year deal (like it did for Jefferson) for just half-a-million more per year. In a vacuum, Smith's contract is not a bad deal. It's not back-loaded, it'd only be three years long for Charlotte, and it's right in line with the kind of money Charlotte has handed out recently. Long story short, if you look at this deal in this context, it's precisely the kind of thing Charlotte might consider naturally.
What about the opportunity cost? One school of thought would suggest that acquiring Smith would mean that the Bobcats would not have money to offer to players like Lance Stephenson. The problem is that Charlotte would not be able to competitively bid for Stephenson, they could only offer the max allowable just like any other team, then hope that Indiana wouldn't match
the offer sheet. Furthermore, why would Stephenson choose to accept the offer sheet from Charlotte's money if there were other, identical offers on the table from teams in larger markets with better records? [ed note: Stephenson is a rare young, unrestricted free agent so no offer sheet would be involved. However, Indiana could still meet and exceed any team's asking price assuming the tam was willing and Stephenson's agent convinced the Pacers the offer was on the table].
Fortunately, if Charlotte were to commit to a 3-year relationship with a guy like Smith, they wouldn't be forced over the cap to do it, and at the start of the second year of this commitment, they'd have another cap space windfall to use even if you assume the cap doesn't increase. So if Charlotte were to stand pat this week and potentially miss the playoffs this summer, they wouldn't be in a position to sign record-driven free agents this summer anyway. If they were to acquire Smith and make the playoffs, that windfall could arrive when the Bobcats trajectory begins attracting players that come there to win, not just to cash a check.
The Trade Cost of Acquiring Josh Smith
There's a bit of irony here, in that the Bobcats could expect to have a very real conversation with Detroit about sending Ben Gordon back to acquire Josh Smith. If it weren't for the trade that sent Ben Gordon and a first round pick to Charlotte, Detroit wouldn't have been able to sign Smith this summer. Given Detroit's pretty epic miscalculation of the frontcourt fit with Smith, Charlotte is in a prime position to continue gaining off of Detroit's loss. If Charlotte were to firmly offer Ben Gordon and a second round pick for Josh Smith, Detroit would have to seriously consider the offer.
It's obvious why Charlotte would be interested, as they'd be able to immediately bolster a position of weakness without giving up any young assets in the process. Realistically, Detroit would ask for more, and it wouldn't be unreasonable for Charlotte to give up a bit more in return. At the base of it, however, such a transaction would be surprisingly realistic for both teams to weigh.
A starting conversation, however, would likely involve both Josh Smith and Rodney Stuckey for Ben Gordon, Ramon Sessions and one of three young players-- Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Gerald Henderson or Cody Zeller. Detroit should quietly enter the discussions being ready to execute a simple Smith/Gordon swap, but the conversation would start around a young asset.
The Timing is Right
The planets are aligning at the moment, and the fact that Charlotte and Detroit will be alone to talk candidly from now until the trade deadline is quite a coincidence. For Charlotte, they have an opportunity to start next week with one of the best frontcourts in the Eastern Conference, doing so without giving up much of anything in the process. It'd be based on a three-year commitment worth about $40M to a 29-year-old player, which precisely explains what they did with Al Jefferson last summer. They'd be inked in to a playoff berth, and they'd carry that trajectory into a free agent windfall in 2015.
For Detroit, the reasoning is obvious. Josh Smith is a horrible fit in Detroit, and the wise move is to keep the young power forward who will share peak ages with Andre Drummond in the future. To make that unique frontcourt work, Detroit needs to undo its commitment to Smith and acquire efficient, productive perimeter players who can space the floor and make plays on the wing. Detroit let several 40%+ 3-point shooters walk right past them in free agency this summer, from Jose Calderon to Kyle Korver to Martell Webster and beyond. This team should work to create an opportunity to acquire complementary pieces like that. Detroit led the league in points in the paint last season, and it is last in the league in 3-point percentage this season. If the Pistons can find an opportunity to undo that mistake and re-assess the situation, they should not hesitate to do so.
It just so happens that Charlotte can offer that opportunity to Detroit. For Charlotte, Detroit can offer the perfect complement to Al Jefferson on a 3-year commitment. Detroit was never the place for Smith, and I made a pretty strong case for that the moment he signed. Charlotte is one of a few places were Smith can play to his strengths and comprise a truly dominant two-way frontcourt. It won't ever happen in Detroit, even if the Pistons made the mistake of moving Monroe. For both parties, this is an opportunity to make both teams better in the near term and the long term alike.