Monday's news that the Detroit Pistons had waived starting power forward Josh Smith was unexpected, to say the least. It was easy to question why a team – even one toiling away with a Philadelphia-esque 5-23 record – would be willing to simply cut bait on a player in only the second year of a four-year, $54 million contract. Then I saw this:
My eyes, they burn.
While it's clear that Smith's signing, as many predicted at the time of the event, was a colossal mistake, it's still hard to justify eating the remaining money owed to him under contract, particularly given the omnipresent salary-cap restraints in today's NBA.i However, thanks to a quirky wrinkle in the most recently negotiated collective bargaining agreement (CBA) between the players' union and the NBA, the Pistons will essentially be able to plunk down a "Get Out Of Jail Free" card to rectify their error.
Article VII, Section 7(d)(5) of the CBA addresses what's known as the "Stretch Provision."ii For players signed since the enactment of the current CBA in December 2011, the Stretch Provision allows a team to spread the cap hit for a waived player over several years. Where a player is waived from September 1 to June 30, the team waiving that player will still be required to pay him for the current season pursuant to the terms of their contract, but any remaining years left on the contract are stretched over twice the number of years remaining plus one.1 The team can also elect to have the salary cap charges match the spread-out salary payments. Like the CBA's Amnesty Clause, a team can only use the Stretch Provision once under the current CBA, which expires in 2017.
In Smith's case, because he was waived after the September 1 deadline, the Pistons will be on the hook for the full $13.5 million he's owed under contract this season.iii The remaining two years, however, are another story. Rather than pay Smith and absorb a salary cap hit of $13.5 million during each of the 2015-16 and 2016-17 seasons, the Pistons can stretch out Smith's remaining two-year salary over a period of five years (i.e. twice the number of years plus one) at a mere $5.4 million per year. Though the Pistons are still required to honor the remaining $27 million left on his contract after this season (and will be required to pay Smith about $5.4 million per year until 2020 – yuck), stretching out Smith's payments and salary cap hit will provide coach and general manager Stan Van Gundy more room to rebuild over these next two seasons since they'll be taking a $5.4 million cap hit per year, instead of $13.5 million. In addition to this gained advantage over the next two offseasons, the Pistons will also be in good shape over the final three years of Smith's stretched-out contract, as the NBA salary cap is projected to rise significantly with a new TV deal on the horizon. Said Van Gundy, "With the cap going up, I think you're looking at that [$5.4 million] being a very small percentage of the cap."
Meanwhile, Josh Smith is set to make out like a Smooth Criminal.iv During the 48-hour waiver period, Smith could theoretically be claimed off waivers by any team with enough cap room to absorb the entirety of his remaining contract. Even if some team was foolish enough to take on that albatross of a deal, as it stands, only one squad, the Sixers, has the requisite cap space. Since it can be safely assumed that Philadelphia wants no part of Smith – though adding him might actually assist them in their goal to tank. Zing! – Smith will become a free agent once he clears waivers, free to sign anywhere that he might please.
The bigger question is who would want Smith? Smith was Detroit's second-leading scorer at 13.1 points per game, but he needed 14 shots to get there. According to basketball reference, the Pistons have been 12.3 points better per 100 possessions when Smith is on the bench this season. His player efficiency rating is an abysmal 14.38. Yet, despite his faults, Smith remains an intriguing piece for a contender, as evidenced by his versatile stat line (13.1 ppg, 7.2 rpg, 4.7 apg, 1.7 bpg, and 1.3 spg).
For fantasy owners, particularly those in head-to-head leagues, Smith was likely a driving force behind their early-season success. Yes, his field goal and free throw percentages are murderous – often making him an ill-advised option in rotisserie leagues – but very few players in the league can match his across-the-board production, particularly at a scarce small-forward position. Playing with Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe, two players who operate almost exclusively around the basket, was a poor fit, as it forced Smith into a perimeter role that does not fit his strengths. Fantasy owners can only hope that Smith's next team is able to deploy him properly, which could help bump his disastrous 39% field goal percentage closer to his more tolerable 46% career average.
According to ESPN's Marc Stein, a number of teams are reportedly interested in pursuing Smith once he clears waivers, including the Sacramento Kings, Dallas Mavericks, Houston Rockets, Miami Heat and Los Angeles Clippers. Of that group, both the Mavericks and Clippers stand out as less-than-ideal landing spots for Smith for fantasy purposes, as Smith would almost certainly come off the bench, taking on a lesser role and playing far few than the 32 minutes per game he averaged in Detroit. While this may improve his efficiency, it would also likely take a huge toll on his counting stats. Meanwhile, Houston – the reported most likely destination for Smith given his close relationship with Dwight Howard and the fact that they can offer the most money via the biannual exception– and Sacramento are better opportunities, but each have their own red flags. In Houston, the up-tempo style of basketball may suit Smith's strengths, but the Rockets have a glut of power forwards (namely, Donatas Motiejunas and Terrence Jones, once he returns from his nerve issue in his leg) that could limit his minutes, and it's unclear how he will mesh with another close-to-the-basket operator in Howard. Conversely, the Kings have a glaring hole at power forward, but the addition of another score-first player to a lineup featuring Rudy Gay and DeMarcus Cousins could come with disastrous results, with all three taking a hit in value.
For my money, Miami would be the ideal landing spot for Smith owners, as he would have the opportunity to play big-time minutes right away, filling the hole left by power forward Josh McRobert's injury. Plus, with Chris Bosh's preference to operate on the perimeter, Smith could fit nicely as an inside threat, upping his percentages in the process. By formally applying to the league office for a Disabled Player Exception (DPE) in the wake of McRobert's season-ending knee injury, Miami is also trying to shake free a little more cash to entice Smith to join the Heat, reports ESPN.com. At present, Miami can offer only a $1.4 million veteran minimum contract to Smith, but a DPE after losing McRoberts would be valued at $2.65 million.
While Smith's status remains up in the air, things became infinitely clearer for fantasy owners of the holdover Pistons. Greg Monroe easily sees the biggest bump in value, as he will return to the starting lineup and should see all the minutes he can handle given the lack of frontcourt depth behind him and Andre Drummond. Further, Smith's departure also solidifies Kentavious Caldwell-Pope's spot in the starting lineup. Though he's struggled with his shot most of the year, he could be a valuable source of points and three-pointers. According to Van Gundy, "We are shifting priorities to aggressively develop our younger players while also expanding the roles of other players in the current rotation to improve performance and build for our future." As a lottery pick in 2013, Caldwell-Pope will almost certainly be one of those players seeing an expansion of his role. Others, including Jodie Meeks – a Van Gundy favorite who the Pistons signed this offseason – Kyle Singler, and even Jonas Jerebko could see an uptick in value, though Caldwell-Pope and Meeks are the only two players I'd consider adding in 10- and 12-team leagues, respectively. Still, Monday's news proves that Van Gundy is not afraid to shake things up as the Pistons embark on a much-needed rebuild, and further moves may be yet to come, v so fantasy owners should be ready to plan accordingly.
i It's been posited that Detroit simply should have dealt Smith, rather than waive him. For starters, almost any trading partner willing to take on Smith's contract would have wanted a first-round pick for the trouble. For a rebuilding club, this simply was not an option, as the team is still reeling from going this route a few years earlier when it was forced to deal a first-round selection just to get out from under fellow free agent signee Ben Gordon's onerous contract. Further, dealing Smith for multiple unfavorable contracts (such as the reported Jason-Thompson-and-Derrick-Williams-for-Smith deal) would have left the Pistons in a worse bind than cutting Smith and using the Stretch Provision on him, as explained in this article.
iii Minus any set-off, which is likely to only be a miniscule amount.
iv Sorry, I couldn't help myself.
v Looking at you, Brandon Jennings.