CLEVELAND — The Washington Wizards didn’t lose Saturday night to the second-worst team in the Eastern Conference because Jason Smith wasn’t there. They didn’t need Smith to stop the Cleveland Cavaliers from peaking from the three-point line. Smith wouldn’t have held rookie point guard Collin Sexton in check or muscled Tristan Thompson away from the glass. John Wall didn’t have a career-low one-point performance because Smith was nowhere near Quicken Loans Arena. Still, that shouldn’t reduce Smith’s contributions to the Wizards.
Had Smith still been with the team, he likely would’ve remained in his warm-ups and only acted as a beacon of sunshine from the sideline through Washington’s low-effort 116-101 loss. But Smith’s presence was missed where he had made his biggest impact — the locker room.
“It’s been a crazy 24 hours for us but we’re making due with it,” Bradley Beal said late Saturday night, bringing up Smith on his own. “A lot of us are a little iffy about it. We love Jason. Jason is a huge part of our team but you know, this is a business world that we live in and organization that we’re in ... things happen. Players come and go and now we have Sam. We can’t heckle on it, because it happened but we definitely didn’t come out with the right focus tonight.”
A day after the Wizards dealt the 12-year veteran, teammates were still coming to grips with the three-team trade that sent Smith to Milwaukee and netted 6-foot-9 forward Sam Dekker from the Cavaliers. Players understand the business component and accept the fact that their friends can be reduced to transactions. Even so, the Smith deal hit the Wizards hard.
In a straw poll conducted within the locker room Saturday night, Wizards' players expressed myriad emotions about losing Smith, with reactions ranging disappointment to feeling “pissed off,” as one player acknowledged. The word “tough” came up often as teammates described Smith as a morale booster, a brother and all-around good guy.
If the Wizards' locker room was akin to a high school lunch room, then Smith was the one who could move freely in and out of the different ecosystems: making the emo kids crack a smile, joking with the jocks and even mingling with the nerds. He was everybody’s friend, including members of the team performance staff. Last summer, Smith was in the wedding of Jesse Phillips, the Wizards' director of player performance and rehabilitation.
He was a producer’s dream. Though he was the one Wizards player who hammed it up for those in-game entertainment bits played on the Jumbotron, singing his heart out to a Backstreet Boys song or showing off his Fortnite moves, he was also the one asked to read a particularly serious promo that had played before games. However, his greatest influence came with his teammates.
During timeouts, if a player grew heated at an official, Smith would act as a shield against technical fouls. When the Wizards stumbled into huddles after surrendering huge runs, Smith would pop up from the bench, applauding and passing encouragement.
Older and young players shared one thing in common: their respect for Smith. Veteran Jeff Green, who was part of the same 2007 draft class, admired his work ethic. Second-year player Thomas Bryant learned team concepts from him, which became helpful when Bryant was propelled into the starting lineup while Smith remained third in the pecking order at center even though the starting lineup had been rearranged after Dwight Howard’s back surgery.
“Every day you have a choice between if you’re going to have a good day or if you’re going to have a bad day,” said Kelly Oubre Jr., who sat next to Smith in the team’s home locker room. “Or if you’re going to allow just the negative circumstances to kind of bring you down. And for him, like, bro, I could never have a bad day because [Smith] never looked like he was having one.
“If you can go through things of ups and downs and sporadic seasons, playing or not playing and still be that happy of an individual and cheer people on and just continue to be an overall good dude, why can’t everybody be that?” Oubre asked. “He really taught me how to be a good human being, to be honest."
Smith had flown with the team Friday to Cleveland, only to learn later that he had been traded. While recalling this event, several Wizards shook their heads. Another teammate said he spoke for at least 10 people in the room when he described Smith leaving the team as a "heartbreaking loss.” Later, when talking with a team staffer who described the trade as “a part of the business,” the same player responded: “The f---ed up part.”
Though unpopular among teammates, the trade was a good financial decision for Washington.
By shipping away Smith, who had appeared in only 12 games this season but was making $5.45 million in the final year of his deal, the team slashed its luxury tax bill from the fourth-highest in the league at $18.3 million to $9.8 million, according to ESPN’s Bobby Marks. A bloated salary stands out as an easy target on a team with an 11-15 record. Though the Wizards are still on pace to pay the luxury tax for the second consecutive season, it was a wise move to jump into the Cleveland-Milwaukee deal late and emerge with a lighter tax bill.
Even so, is saving money worth the cost of sacrificing the structure in an already fragile locker room?
Last month, a fiery practice led to several verbal altercations and one anonymous player aired insider grievances to ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith. All the while, Smith kept propping up others and living up to his reputation as the best teammate, so voted on by the National Basketball Players Association in 2017. Though this locker room has issues, Smith was never the problem.
The Wizards didn’t lose Saturday night because Smith was gone. However without Smith, the Wizards now have to search for another unifying force.