Can Detroit trade Josh Smith?

Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

If the Pistons decide to part ways with their most highly paid player, what teams might be interested?

When the 2013-14 NBA season began last fall, one of the top story lines was the Pistons “Big Three” line-up of Andre Drummond, Greg Monroe and Josh Smith. When he signed Smith to a four year/$54 million contract last summer, Joe Dumars indicated that the plan was for Smith to start at small forward. While he had played that position fairly frequently his first few years in the league, most observers felt that power forward was his more natural spot. Speculation was that Detroit would eventually rotate its three big men at the two power positions, or at least minimize the time Smith played small forward.

This season has borne out the worst fears of Pistons’ fans about how Smith would function alongside Drummond and Monroe. Since neither of them is very effective at stretching the floor to create space in the paint (though Monroe is more able to do so with his passing ability and a jump shot he continues to develop), Smith took on that responsibility. Knowing that his jump shot is the weakest part of his game, opposing defenses were often willing to give him open looks. The predictable result has been that Smith has shot more (16.0 shots per game compared to a career average of 13.2) and worse (.419 percent versus .459 percent for his career) than ever.

While Detroit’s offense has functioned better than its abysmal defense, it would be a mistake to see no connection between these two. As Chauncey Billups has said, "Some of the shots we take are like turnovers.” Who fires up most of the misses? Smith and Brandon Jennings, who have combined to take .336 percent of the team’s shots, but make only .398 percent of them. The rest of the team makes .471 percent of their shots. If the whole squad shot that well, Detroit’s offense would be seventh in field goal percentage (behind Oklahoma City’s .473 percent). As it stands, the Pistons are 20th at .446 percent. Only three playoff-bound teams have shot worse – Charlotte, Chicago and Toronto. But they sport much stronger defenses.

While Detroit’s defensive challenges cannot be laid solely on Smith’s doorstep, it is evident that expecting him to guard small forwards has weakened the team’s ability to contest three-pointers. Tayshaun Prince commented before the season began, “When [Smith is] guarding the 3 and the guy’s a shooter, you’ve got to stay home — there ain’t no going for blocked shots [in help defense] or they’ll pick you apart.” Opposing teams have converted .367 of their threes. Yet the Pistons are even worse at defending two-point goals – allowing makes at a .508 percent rate. It seems likely that both of those figures might be better if Smith was used primarily as a power forward. But that is the position Greg Monroe plays, and at age 23 he will still be in his prime when Drummond is likely to reach his peak.

According to Smith, “... it’s not all my fault.” Even Pistons’ teammates Billups and Monroe agree that the responsibility for the Pistons’ poor showing this season cannot be attributed to any one player. But certainly the Smith signing has not worked out nearly as well as anyone had hoped, so he could be on the trading block. While some have characterized his contract (three years/$40.5 million left) as being “untradeable,” past experience shows that this is seldom the case. The issue is whether there are franchises that would be interested in adding Smith to their roster this summer, and what they would offer Detroit in return. So let’s look now at some possible destinations for him:

Boston Celtics

A pairing of Smith with the Celtics’ Rajon Rondo, his friend and old high school teammate at Oak Hill Academy, is a scenario that even they have discussed. If Boston is interested in acquiring Smith for their frontcourt, a swap of Gerald Wallace (two years/$20.2 million) might be appealing. The 31-year-old Wallace is currently recovering from knee and ankle surgery and will not play again this season.

The Celtics are at a crossroads, and must decide whether to seek immediate improvement or rebuild. If they choose to start over, then they may wish to part ways with Rondo and Jeff Green rather than add Smith. But if they opt for a quicker path to success, Smith could assist with that alternative. For Detroit, Wallace would offer veteran depth at small forward, and a contract that will expire when they need to extend Drummond’s rookie deal in 2016.

Brooklyn Nets

After a very disappointing 5-14 start, the Nets have become one of the East’s better teams, and will probably finish fifth. This is a team that is built to win now, but needs more talent to compete with the top squads. One area of weakness is power forward, where Kevin Garnett (one year/$12 million) has often been injured and ineffective. Paul Pierce has started in his place, but his deal is due to expire. The tricky part would be getting Garnett to agree to this exchange, since he has a consent clause in his contract.

Smith would be an affordable and immediate upgrade for Brooklyn if the team can convince Garnett to okay a move. Perhaps he would enjoy being reunited with his old Minnesota teammate Billups. While Garnett might add some depth and veteran mentoring upfront, the Pistons’ main gain would be salary cap relief the following year.

Chicago Bulls

At age 32, Carlos Boozer is on the downside of his career. His playing time (28.4 minutes), scoring (13.8 points) and rebounding (8.2 boards) averages are their lowest since his rookie season. Conversely, in the final year of his contract, he’s due to bring home his biggest paycheck – $16.8 million. Chicago could ride out another year or amnesty Boozer, but perhaps they would prefer to find a willing trade partner. If so, Smith could take his place in their starting line-up at power forward and also give them over $3 million in immediate cap relief.

In Detroit, Boozer would provide a veteran third big who could be paired with either Drummond or Monroe. But the primary value of the trade would be the cap savings that would come in 2015.

Denver Nuggets

As a power forward who runs the floor, Smith might be a good fit with Denver’s offense. They are also saddled with a couple of contracts that they might wish to unload – Danilo Gallinari (two years/$22.4 million) and JaVale McGee (two years/$23.3 million). Both have missed most of the current season due to injuries that have required surgery.

In Gallinari, the Pistons would be acquiring a young (age 25) small forward with three-point range (career .369 percent). Or if they received McGee, they’d be adding a shot-blocker to back up Drummond. While either player would add depth to the Detroit roster, the fact that their deals both expire in 2016 would be the biggest boon.

Los Angeles Lakers

The Lakers’ pantry is mostly bare, so Mitch Kupchak should have a busy summer trying to assemble a squad around Kobe Bryant. Since they retained him for two more years, it seems likely they want to field a competitive team for 2014-15. One option would be to acquire Smith, who could slide into the starting power forward slot.

If Los Angeles needs to send out salary in the deal, the obvious choice would be 40-year-old Steve Nash (one year/$9.7 million). He may not have much left in the tank to offer other than veteran mentoring, but here also the Pistons’ purpose would be speedy cap relief. And if Nash chose to retire instead of moving to Motown, so much the better.

Memphis Grizzlies

Zach Randolph (one year/$16.9 million) has been the Grizzlies’ most dependable scorer and rebounder for the past five seasons. But suppose their management concludes that at age 32 his best years are behind him? It’s questionable whether Smith would be an adequate replacement for “ZBo,” but if Memphis chooses to move on now he would be a more affordable option.

For Detroit, the greatest result of this trade could be the opportunity for Monroe to learn firsthand from a master more of the skills that could elevate his game to an All Star level. The fact that Randolph would give the Pistons a potent third big man for their playing rotation would not hurt, either. And, of course, they would enjoy substantial salary savings in 2015.

New York Knickerbockers

While they have battled for the East’s final playoff spot, the 2013-14 campaign has been disappointing for New York. Since their first priority is probably to hold on to Carmelo Anthony, the best way to do that will be to show him they have a plan to get better. Could Smith be part of the answer? Andrea Bargnani (one year/$11.5 million) has missed about half the season due to injuries and his three-point shooting (.278 percent) has reached a new low. Smith shoots threes almost that well, and can rebound, pass and defend at a much superior level. He did play his best ball under Coach Mike Woodson back in Atlanta.

While it’s conceivable that Bargnani might return to past form and offer Detroit a floor-stretching big man, that outcome would be pure gravy. Getting out of two years and $29 million of its contractual commitment to Smith would be the main gain.

Philadelphia 76ers

Philadelphia is another fast-paced team that might find Smith helpful, and they need to find some use for all of their cap space, don’t they? Thaddeus Young (two years/$19.4 million) would be the logical player for them to offer in return. As with several other trade possibilities, he could be immediately plugged into the Piston’s rotation as a third big. And (are you noticing a trend?) Young’s deal would expire just in time to leave plenty of cap space for Drummond’s extension.

Portland Trailblazers

This may be the craziest idea of all, but LaMarcus Aldridge (one year/$16 million) is entering the final year of his post-rookie max deal. Keeping him beyond next season will not be cheap, and Portland will also have to make decisions regarding retaining Robin Lopez and Wes Matthews in 2015 and Nicolas Batum and Damian Lillard in 2016. Smith would be a clear downgrade in productivity, but would be cheaper than paying Aldridge the raise he will expect. You get what you pay for – if you are fortunate.

While figuring out its starters would present Detroit with a quandary if this unlikely trade were to materialize, a three big rotation of Aldridge, Drummond and Monroe would be hard to top next season. And the inevitable debate among fans about whether to retain Aldridge or trade Monroe in 2015 would make for lively discussions on Detroit Bad Boys!

Sacramento Kings

The priority for the Kings this summer has to be keeping Isaiah Thomas, who will soon cease to be the league’s cheapest 20 points per game scorer. But ever since they rejuvenated Rudy Gay’s career, some Pistons’ fans have wondered if the Kings would also like to try their hand with Smith. He might actually be a good complement upfront to DeMarcus Cousins.

For a trade to work, it would probably have to include either Carl Landry (three years/$19.5 million) or Jason Thompson (three years/$19.3 million), plus one other player. Either Jason Terry (one year/$5.9 million) or Derrick Williams (one year/$6.3 million) should suffice. Terry, for example, could take Rodney Stuckey’s place in the Detroit guard rotation next season. Currently recovering from knee surgery, Landry has been a useful reserve at power forward for most of his career. While the third year of his deal would extend through the 2016-17 season, its modest amount ($6.5 million) would still save the Pistons $7 million they could use to meet other needs. The same is true for Thompson if the Kings preferred to offer him.

Washington Wizards

While the Wizards biggest priority is to either keep Marcin Gortat or find a suitable replacement, it’s not inconceivable that they could be interested in Smith. This possibility is especially worth considering if we look at who they could offer Detroit – Nene Hilario (two years/$26 million). While he is a more efficient scorer than Smith, he is an inferior rebounder and shot-blocker. But the biggest concern is that Nene cannot stay on the court. Injuries have substantially reduced his playing time the past four seasons. Smith has been much more durable, and might prove to be a more dynamic partner for point guard John Wall.

The Pistons would not expect Nene to start, of course. But hopefully he would be healthy enough to back up both Drummond and Monroe as needed. Best of all, his deal would expire in 2016.

Conclusions

While many may find some or all of these scenarios unlikely, it’s a fact that even “untradeable” players can be dealt. Bargnani and Gay are both perfect illustrations that this is so, and Gay shows that a new home can even transform a player’s game. Of course, each of these proposed trades depends on another team seeing positive possibilities in Smith playing for them. But as the old saying goes, “Beauty lies in the eye of the beholder.” Ideally, Detroit will not have to part with a first round pick, as they did in the Ben Gordon trade.

Vote your preference in the attached poll and then share your comments.

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