Smith was signed by former team president Joe Dumars to a four-year, $54 million contract just last summer. Though the Pistons already had two up-and-coming big men in Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe, Dumars brought in Smith—a natural power forward.
The thought was that Smith would start at small forward alongside the other two, but a rotation would be used to limit the time they shared the court together. As Dumars explained to Zach Lowe of Grantland before the start of the 2013-14 season:
I don’t know how many minutes we’ll have that front line [Drummond, Smith, Monroe] on the floor together, once you get past the first six minutes for the first quarter. It’s not like it’s going to be 40 minutes a night with that front line. Monroe will slide to [center], Josh will slide to [power forward]. It's not a concern of ours.
That wasn't exactly what happened, as the trio spent 1,360 minutes on the court together during the 2013-14 season, according to NBA.com. And they didn't have much success together, getting outscored by 185 points during that span, the worst total of any three-man lineup for the Pistons, per NBA.com.
The trio simply didn't fit well together; offensively, none of them can shoot from the outside, and they struggle defending quicker teams. Playing three talented big men at once was an interesting experiment, but it is time to head a different direction after a 29-win season.
Odd Man Out
Drummond, Monroe and Smith are all starting-caliber NBA big men, but they cannot all fit together on the Pistons. Moving any of the three would solve that problem, but the best possible move would be to trade Smith.
Though new coach and team president Stan Van Gundy said that no player is untouchable, Drummond is as close as it gets to that status. At just 20 years old, he's already one of the best big men in the game and is considered by some to be the most promising center in the NBA.
He's not going anywhere.
Monroe, however, is far from a sure thing to return to the Pistons in 2014-15. He's a restricted free agent and is already receiving interest from other teams. Van Gundy likes the idea of pairing Monroe and Drummond, and the Pistons will have the ability to match any contract offered to Monroe this summer. But if another team offers him a maximum contract, there's no guarantee that the Pistons would be willing to match, though it would be easier to resolve that money if Smith is off the books.
They could try to move Monroe for help on the perimeter and start Smith next to Drummond, but at 24 years old, Monroe is far closer in age to Drummond than Smith, 28, is. They also have offensive games that are fairly complementary. Van Gundy said to NBA.com:
If I look at just the film I’ve watched now and looking at the numbers, you would say that Greg and Andre together were great offensively. That was a great combination on the offensive end of the floor, especially when the three guys around them were shooters – more conventional perimeter types. That worked very, very well.
Not only is Smith older than the rest of Detroit's core, he was one of the worst shooters in the league this season. And even worse, many believe he was the root of the poor locker room chemistry for the Pistons. While Monroe has his faults, none are as glaring as Smith's inability to make shots from the outside (or cease shooting them altogether) or his repeated clashes with coaches.
It may be easier for the Pistons to move Monroe, but he is a far better fit than Smith.
Potential Trade Partners
With three years, $40.5 million left on his contract and coming off the worst season of his career, finding a team interested in Smith will be no easy task. But he's still an elite athlete, a player who can defend multiple positions and a borderline All-Star when properly motivated. A franchise looking for a final championship piece may be willing to take a chance on him.
The Brooklyn Nets are a team that could fit that description. As B/R's Adam Fromal pointed out, a trade of Smith and Brandon Jennings for Deron Williams works out financially. With Williams frustrated in Brooklyn and Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov in constant championship-or-bust mode, this could be the easiest way to unload Smith.
There are other teams looking to win now that could look at a trade for Smith. The Golden State Warriors think of themselves as championship contenders but were bounced in the first round of the playoffs. Though they may have their sights set on Kevin Love, perhaps moving Smith for David Lee—who is being shopped—could be a solid backup plan.
Smith is a far better defender than Lee, and their contracts could be traded one-for-one. Smith's athleticism would be an excellent fit for what the Warriors have done defensively. The move (or something similar) would free the Pistons of Smith, although it would not solve their surplus big men situation.
Similarly, the Houston Rockets could look at Smith if they miss out on Carmelo Anthony and Love. The Rockets are looking for a third star to play alongside Dwight Howard and James Harden, and Howard and Smith are very close friends. The Rockets were also rumored to have gone after Smith last offseason.
NBA league source tells me Rockets have been informed Dwight Howard told them he's headed to Houston. Rockets now working on getting J.Smith— Zach Klein (@ZachKleinWSB) July 5, 2013
The Rockets could trade for Smith with a package based around Jeremy Lin.
There are also teams with enough cap space to take on Smith's contract without giving up anyone meaningful in return. The Los Angeles Lakers will have tons of cap space, and Kobe Bryant has made it very clear he wants to win now. If they miss out on the top free agents, Smith would be the best available player.
The Dallas Mavericks will also have enough cap space to acquire Smith, and Mark Cuban has never shied away from acquiring players with questionable pasts. He had success bringing in Monta Ellis last offseason, and perhaps Smith, too, could learn to take better shots under Rick Carlisle.
Finally, the Phoenix Suns are a young team that almost made the playoffs in 2013-14. Power forward is a position where they can definitely upgrade, and they had talks of acquiring Pau Gasol at the trade deadline. Smith would be a better fit than Gasol because of his age and athleticism. Since Phoenix isn't considered a top free-agent destination, trading for Smith may be the easiest way for the Suns to upgrade their talent level.
After the struggles Smith had with the Pistons in 2013-14, moving him to another team may not be simple. They may have to accept a fairly minimal return for him in a trade or even take back another bad contract.
But because he cannot play alongside Drummond and Monroe, and he has proven to be a detriment to the team's chemistry, the Pistons must find a way to trade him this offseason.
All statistics from NBA.com unless otherwise noted.
Jakub Rudnik covers the Detroit Pistons as a Featured Columnist for B/R.
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