Smith will sign with Houston once he clears waivers, according to two people with knowledge of the situation, and the move will reunite the Atlanta native with his good friend and former AAU teammate, Dwight Howard.
The move to waive him, which one rival executive described as “reckless,” rids the Pistons of Smith’s errant jumpers – he was on pace to finish last in true shooting percentage among qualified players for the second year in a row – but keeps him on franchise’s books for $5.4 million per season through 2020 under the league’s stretch provision. The Pistons have attempted to justify annually shelling out the equivalent of the full midlevel exception for nothing by championing the $8.1 million in salary cap room that Smith’s removal will provide and how a steadily increasing salary cap will minimize that salary slot when the league’s new television begins in 2016-17.
What shouldn’t be ignored, though, is that the Pistons were given a get-out-of-Smith-pass last summer when the Sacramento Kings aggressively tried to acquire Smith by offering different packages that included Jason Thompson and either Derrick Williams or Carl Landry, according to people with knowledge of the situation.
Van Gundy wasn’t enamored with any of the proposals from Sacramento and felt that he would succeed with a poorly-conceived frontline that former team president Joe Dumars left for him in Smith, Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe. By not dumping Smith in the summer for Thompson and Williams, Van Gundy wound up costing the franchise nearly $18 million — Williams could have walked as a free agent next summer and Thompson is owed just $9 million guaranteed beyond this season.
Smith was a terrible fit in Detroit but he was also playing this season with injuries to his hip and groin and a large blister on his left foot. Those nagging ailments took away plenty of his explosiveness and limited the former slam dunk champion to just seven dunks this season.
In his attempts to deal Smith in recent weeks, Van Gundy found that teams were less enthralled as they offered bad contracts and sought a first-round draft pick in exchange for taking on a declining player. Those options were less appealing than pigging out on week-old garbage, so the Pistons opted to eat more than $30 million instead.
The Smith saga has been complicated by the possibility that the Pistons could also lose Monroe next summer and receive nothing in return after investing five years into one of the league’s talented young big men. Monroe made his intention to leave clear but Van Gundy refused to trade him despite two teams being interested in a sign-and-trade, according to a person with knowledge of the situation. To expedite his freedom, Monroe signed a qualifying offer rather than sign an offer sheet elsewhere.
Van Gundy will now look to turn Drummond into an offensive focal point, in hopes of having similar results as Dwight Howard in Orlando. That process could lead to more losing but also another high draft pick, which appears to be the goal right now.
The Pistons were once of the league’s model franchises after making six consecutive Eastern Conference finals appearances from 2003 to 2008 but have fallen into a cesspool. Former Pistons player Tayshaun Prince once described the dysfunction in Detroit as “buffoonery,” and this season has continued the tradition. Before Smith’s departure, the Pistons lost a franchise record 14 in a row and Brandon Jennings provided the defining moment of the season when he declined an open layup to attempt – and miss – a turnaround jumper.
Van Gundy, who took over as team president and coach last may, has proven to be a novice as an executive and is lacking that impulsive decisiveness required to clean up an increasing mound of clutter. If he can’t figure out how to handle both duties, Smith’s contract might outlast him.
New owner syndrome
Sacramento Kings owner Vivek Ranadive came under scrutiny last week when he decided to fire Mike Malone after the team lost seven of nine games, despite the absence of star DeMarcus Cousins. The move has yet to make a difference, with replacement Tyrone Corbin going 1-3 despite Cousins returning from viral meningitis to play in three of those games.
Ranadive differed with Malone on several matters, including a desire for a more wide-open offense that showcased the scoring talents of his players and a reported request to have the Kings play four-on-five defense with a player cherry-picking on the other side. The dismissal seemed odd but falls in line with what has become a tradition as the NBA has welcomed a new wave of owners in the past decade.
Of the 13 owners/ownership groups who have purchased NBA franchises in the past 10 years, only two allowed their coaches to stick around for at least two full seasons: New Orleans Pelicans Coach Monty Williams is in his third season working under Tom Benson and Josh Harris and Adam Aron gave Doug Collins exactly two seasons in Philadelphia before letting him go.
Pistons owner Tom Gores fired John Kuester four days after taking over the franchise in June 2011. Dan Gilbert terminated Paul Silas three weeks after buying the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2005. Michael Jordan parted with Larry Brown 10 months after acquiring the Charlotte Bobcats. More recently, new Milwaukee Bucks owners Wesley Edens and Marc Lasry clumsily replaced Larry Drew with Jason Kidd in June before informing Drew of their plans to move on. Edens and Lasry had purchased the Bucks in April.
The situations in each firing were different and usually came with the justification of losing but the unique aspect of Ranadive’s firing of Malone is that he is the only owner to actually hire the coach that he dismissed.
Vanishing NBA middle class
In a recent interview with ESPN’s “Outside the Lines,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver shot down the perception that teams in his league were intentionally throwing games in pursuit of increased draft lottery odds. Silver stated, “I absolutely don’t think any team is trying to lose.”
If that’s the case, and no teams are “tanking,” then the NBA simply features an increasing number of lousy franchises, devaluing the product. The league currently has four teams winning less than 20 percent of their games – Philadelphia, New York, Detroit and Minnesota – on Christmas, which is easily the most in the past 15 years. Since the 1999-00 season, the NBA has had five 82-game campaigns in which no teams had winning percentages below the Mendoza line (.200) on December 25, including last season — when complaints of tanking were incessant, given the struggles of Philadelphia and Milwaukee. In 2008-09, three teams had lost more than 80 percent of their games by this time of the season.
The increased number of dreadful teams has allowed more dominant teams to emerge, with seven teams currently winning more than 70 percent of their games – Golden State, Portland, Toronto, Atlanta, Memphis, Houston and Washington. In the past 15 years, the NBA has six teams winning at a similar clip by Christmas two times, with both coming in the past five years (2010-11 and 2012-13).
These figures will likely change on both ends of the spectrum, with the quality teams facing each other more often and the miserable squads doing the same. Since the league expanded to 30 teams in 2004-05 with the addition of the Charlotte franchise, the most teams to finish an 82-game season at better than .700 was four (twice, in 2004-05 and 2008-09) and the most below .200 was two (in 2009-10).