Give And Go: Josh Smith’s future
Give And Go is a recurring feature in which The Point Forward’s Ben Golliver and Rob Mahoney bat an NBA topic du jour back and forth.
This week: assessing impending free-agent forward Josh Smith’s desire for a maximum contract (five years, about $98 million) and how Hawks general manager Danny Ferry should respond.
1. Is Josh Smith worth a max contract? If not, ballpark his worth?
Ben Golliver: Josh Smith is gonna cost ya, no two ways about that. Last summer’s signings set his negotiating floor well into the eight-figure range annually. The Celtics gave Jeff Green $36 million for four years; the Nets handed Gerald Wallace $40 million over four years; and the Timberwolves extended a four-year, $46 million offer sheet to Nicolas Batum that the Trail Blazers matched. Smith, who is making $13.2 million in the last year of his contract, can claim to be a better player than all three of those forwards. The 27-year-old is in his prime years, he’s in good health and he has steadily produced for seven seasons in a row. He’s a known, albeit imperfect, quantity. In determining his value, his personality flaws aren’t as important as the fact that teams won’t be paying him on potential or putting money at risk for an aging player in decline. This is his prime earning time.
The tougher question is where Smith falls between $12 million per year and the near $20 million annually he could receive in a max offer from the Hawks. Going back a few years, the Warriors gave David Lee, now a two-time All-Star, roughly $13 million annually over six years. Smith doesn’t have the All-Star credentials or Lee’s double-digit rebounding tallies, but he’s a much more credible defender and he’s a better fit in systems that can make use of his athleticism and versatility. It’s worth noting that while the Hawks can offer him a five-year contract with 7.5 percent annual raises this summer, other suitors would be limited to four-year offers with 4.5 percent raises (the latter would max out at close to $75 million). It’s possible that fact could push up his per-year dollars from outside suitors. If a rival team offers him more than $60 million for four years — and a club almost certainly will if given the chance — it would be too rich for my blood. Still, I wouldn’t blink if that happened.
Rob Mahoney: I have a sneaking suspicion that some desperate team out there will offer Smith the max, which in effect makes that his value. Only the economics of the open market can determine “worth” in a case like this. There are way too many factors in play to attempt to gauge some absolute value, and with a player as curious as Smith, such an endeavor might be flat-out impossible.
So we’re left to determine worth as the outcome of what an owner is willing to pay. Given how diligently so many teams have positioned themselves for a free-agent market now weakened by extensions for players such as James Harden, Stephen Curry, Jrue Holiday and Serge Ibaka and potentially lacking would-be headliners Chris Paul and Dwight Howard, that sum of money for Smith is almost certain to be exorbitant and unreasonable. Smith is good enough to be one of the best players available, and for that reason alone he may well wind up a max player.
2. Do you have a problem with Smith’s public negotiating?
Rob Mahoney: No. Smith has made it clear what kind of offer he feels he deserves, and he has avoided the facetiousness that infects many free-agents-to-be. The conservative PR move for Smith involves blowing plenty of smoke to prop up the incumbent team, but that kind of inflated rhetoric is exactly what gets fans so riled up when a prominent player leaves in free agency. Smith may not have the same rosy relationship with Hawks fans that other departing stars have had with their team’s supporters, but he’s at least been forthcoming about his expectations and intentions.
Ben Golliver: I’m a big proponent of transparency in negotiations. Better to be up front when discussing the possibility of a long-term commitment rather than disguise motivations or resentments. A player of his caliber is not speaking out of turn when he says that he believes he’s a max player. That’s a matter of personal opinion and, of course, pride. If his public comments had crossed the line into clear criticisms of the Hawks’ organization or airing of dirty laundry, that would be a different story. For now, I think he’s in the clear, and I would still feel the same way if he were to make a public trade request, as long as it happened without obvious malice. By trading Joe Johnson and Marvin Williams, the Hawks knowingly took the risk that Smith and other veterans might react negatively to the franchise’s direction. (It’s worth noting, though, that the Hawks are contending for home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs.) As long as Smith keeps this about business and doesn’t make it personal, his honesty is a fine medicine here.
3. Which general manager should be pursuing Smith most actively before the Feb. 21 trade deadline?
Ben Golliver: The default answer to this question, almost regardless of which player we’re talking about, seems to be Rockets GM Daryl Morey. A starting five of Jeremy Lin, Harden, Chandler Parsons, Josh Smith and Omer Asik would be, for lack of a more precise and erudite phrase, pretty sick. Putting Smith on the league’s fastest-paced team could very well be electrifying enough to bring the Free Darko blog out of retirement. (We miss you!) Houston has been stockpiling random minor assets throughout Morey’s tenure, cashing in some of them to land Harden from the Thunder in October. Repeating that strategy here would create a nice star pairing in Harden and Smith while maintaining enough talent to have a legitimate chance at a playoff push next season.
Bonus: If anyone could finally sell Smith on the importance of shot selection, it would be the Rockets’ stat-obsessed brain trust, right? Morey’s golden ticket to Executive of the Year is getting Smith to stop launching any shot outside of 15 feet. I digress. Anyway, this could be a solid momentum move for Houston. Acquiring Smith could also take the Rockets one step closer to becoming a destination for older vets looking to catch on with a team going somewhere.
Rob Mahoney: Houston’s a great, choice, Ben, but I’d love to see Denver’s Masai Ujiri get involved. The Nuggets make sense as a trade partner only if the Hawks have no interest in re-signing Smith and are willing to accept a prospect-based package or the three years remaining on Wilson Chandler’s contract, all of which are fairly reasonable conditions. Without Chandler’s involvement, the Nuggets could offer a combination of players on expiring deals (Corey Brewer, Timofey Mozgov), prospects on rookie-scale contracts (Jordan Hamilton and Evan Fournier) and whatever picks they could muster. That’s not a great return for Smith in a strict value-for-value comparison, but those pieces (and the lack of any substantial, long-term commitments involved) could make sense for a Hawks team that’s due for a radical overhaul this offseason.
For the Nuggets’ part, they could obtain a big man who is far better defensively than any on their roster and unlock the long-armed synergy of Smith, Andre Iguodala, Danilo Gallinari, and JaVale McGee. It’s hardly a cure-all move for the Nuggets, but one that doubles down on George Karl’s stylistic choice and banks on the value of impact players in the absence of a traditional shot creator. End-game situations would still be challenging, but adding a quality passer, an open-court athlete and a talented defender could pan out tremendously for the Nuggets this season.
The elephant in the room, though, is whether Smith would re-sign in Denver — and if dealing all of those minor assets is worth renting him for a few months.
4. To what degree does Hawks third-leading scorer Lou Williams’ recent season-ending knee injury affect Smith’s future?
Rob Mahoney: Losing such a prominent player would significantly alter the plans of many teams, but I’m not sure that Williams’ absence changes any of what the Hawks are trying to accomplish. If the Hawks were loaded with older veterans, then the timing of his recovery may be something of an issue. And if the Hawks were dead-set on making the most of a playoff run this season, then his injury would undoubtedly have some effect on the Smith trade calculus.
But as it stands, this is a team playing the long game. Atlanta parted ways with Joe Johnson and Marvin Williams because Danny Ferry is committed to changing the way this team operates in relation to the salary cap, and both of those players stood as impediments to the franchise’s long-term interests because of their hefty contracts. Through deals for both players, Ferry amassed an army of expiring contracts, a decision made to boost Atlanta’s play this season while maximizing future flexibility. He accomplished that much beautifully, and though Lou Williams’ injury very much hurts the Hawks’ playoff prospects, it doesn’t exactly alter their fate. Even if the loss of his scoring and ball-handling costs Atlanta a shot at the second round, that shouldn’t much affect Ferry’s dealings with Smith — whose expiring contract gives the Hawks a pivot point to begin their eventful offseason.
Ben Golliver: This is not meant as a swipe at Lou Williams, the quality of his play or his importance to the Hawks’ future, but I don’t see his injury altering the calculation on Smith in the slightest. Yes, the Hawks’ chances to advance in the playoffs take a hit, but in the big picture this is a team in transition. The loss of Williams might make the rest of the season feel a bit more hopeless for the players, but management’s approach shouldn’t change. Smith’s future should boil down to the simplest of questions: Is he worth a monster financial commitment, or not?
5. What should Danny Ferry do?
Ben Golliver: I would push hard for to swing a deal before the deadline because I would fear the dumb money that could appear come summertime and because I’d be inclined to believe that Smith isn’t the long-term answer unless he’s coming at a bargain (unlikely). Enough teams will be in a position to offer Smith big dollars and the available talent in the 2013 class is weak enough that the risk that a rival team goes all-in to land Smith as its big fish seems fairly high. While I wouldn’t expect to receive a massive haul of assets by trading Smith during the season, I’d rather have whatever picks and/or prospects I could peel off in a deal now than get stuck empty-handed during the summer (or, even worse, talking myself into overpaying to keep him). I’d rather be mocked for “losing” a deal in February than watch him walk in July, and I’d rather have the cap space and minor assets than commit at least 25 percent of my salary cap to Smith, even if that meant taking a step back in 2013-14.
Some of this is about organizational culture, too. Smith is in the right if he does feel frustrated and disappointed that the Hawks haven’t achieved more success during his time there, as has been reported in the past. It would be difficult for Ferry to promise Smith that he’s going to put together a winner to satisfy him immediately when he can’t exactly guarantee his ability to do that. It’s better to confront that tension head-on by moving Smith rather than trying to placate those feelings in hopes that the situation will somehow resolve itself. It would make sense for Ferry, who arrived in Atlanta from San Antonio, to follow the Spurs’ no-drama, just-winning model that puts an emphasis on acquiring and keeping players interested in representing the organization without preconditions. Building a successful program that attracts talent requires a significant amount of time, resources and dedication. Ferry signed a six-year contract last summer, though, so he’s in no particular rush.
Rob Mahoney: Smith and the Hawks have been slowly moving toward this decision for years, with plenty of frustrations on both sides. In my eyes, that makes the risk of relying on his free agency just a bit too great for the Hawks. Even though I’m not quite as opposed to the idea of Atlanta’s re-signing Smith, there’s just too much baggage to assume that a deal could go off between these two parties without some significant hitch. Ferry may give the front office a different voice, but it’s his different view — and as you mention, the timeline involved in his rebuilding plan — that makes me think Smith might prefer to go elsewhere. He’ll have to leave guaranteed money on the table to do so, but it wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest to see Smith dart for a still-lucrative offer from some other suitor.
With so much uncertainty, Ferry should be (and undoubtedly is) fielding calls and working the phones to gauge offers for Smith. Count me, too, in favor of redeeming Smith’s value while that option is still on the table. We shouldn’t expect a trade, necessarily, as the Hawks could still stand to benefit from the release of Smith’s cap hold. But the confluence of the harms that could come from committing so much cap room to Smith and the possibility of his bolting without consolation make the acquisition of draft picks and prospects the decidedly more palatable option.