Tuesday, February 19, 2013

PLOTSKY'S POSITION: The Josh Smith Chronicles

Dan P

Everything you ever wanted to know about Josh Smith and NBA economics.

Headache—1. A pain located in the head; 2. An annoying or bothersome person…

Can you name the most talked-about player in recent NBA trade circles?  If you said Atlanta Hawks forward, Josh Smith, you’d be correct!  I put a definition just above this portion that best sums up what I think of Josh Smith--a headache.  Now to be clear, not all headaches are bad.  He is such a unique player; he’s often a headache for the opposition to figure out how to play against him.  

Smith also has the nasty habit of forgetting what makes him an unconventional commodity in the NBA and, therefore, marketable.  First, let’s get one thing straight.  Unlike other North American sports’, the NBA is solely dependent, financially on the quality of its stars.  Win-Loss records in the NBA sell tickets, but star players buys fans for an owner (“Puts asses in the seats,” yells out the typical UFC fan—Ed).  A team’s popularity can ebb and flow during eras of feast or famine and transcendent stars like LeBron James really do only happen every so often.  

Once you peel back the layers of the NBA hierarchy, it becomes very difficult to differentiate the levels of talent amongst the league's 1A and 1B class of players.  I find this is where a high percentage of the league's bad, lucrative contracts are inked.  They aren't quite stars that can lead a franchise, but definitely above “role player status.”  

Under the new CBA (collective bargaining agreement), a max-level player is eligible for a $100 million dollar contract over 5 years, where the fifth year is only attainable if the player is re-signing with his original team.  Without going through the names, there are only about 12 players in the NBA, in most given years that are worthy of this max contract for what they mean to a franchise’s success.  So this means, in simple math, that there are more teams in the NBA that would have the money for a “max guy,” but there are too few players of this caliber to go around.  Take also into consideration the assemblies of “Big 3's” and that uber-talent pool is being dispersed less.  This often leads to over-payment of dwindling returns and, for many teams, it’s a catch-22.  In order for small markets to bring players to their cities, they have to overpay their worth without really achieving long-term success. Now it's ok to do this occasionally, but when a team has to field rosters in this manor to be relevant, then problems occur.

So what is a fair value for someone like Josh Smith?  If I’m applying for a GM position with a team and the owner informed me that Smith is our best player on the roster and there was little wiggle room to make significant changes over the next few years, I would find the nearest window and fling myself from it.  But if Smith was the third best player on the team, even with cap constraints, I think we would be able to work something out.  

His pedigree of being a tremendous athlete who plays both ends of the floor, combining speed and size, is a huge asset.  While not a great spot up shooter or shot creator, he always manages to find clever ways to get easier baskets, despite only playing with average point guards in his career such as Jeff Teague, Kirk Hinrich, and NBA relic, Mike Bibby a few years back.  Finding a point guard who can run a true pick and roll with Smith should boost his FG% to that of elite around 50% (Smith is a career 46%FG).  Such destinations that have been rumored are the
San Antonio Spurs
Los Angeles Lakers
Brooklyn Nets
(And most recently, the Philadelphia 76ers—Ed)

The first three teams mentioned would be prime candidates as they possess point guards who excel in pick and roll scenarios (Steve Nash/Deron Williams/Tony Parker).  Even more coincidental is the fact that all three of those teams are slightly older in age and all sport a very solid center (Dwight Howard/Tim Duncan/Brook Lopez).

…Side Note: Yes, for argument’s sake, Tim Duncan has played center for the Spurs this year…  

This is a really nice setup for Smith who can be free to roam the weak side of the court and respond to threats down low by blocking the shooter from behind or oblique angles. Not to mention an infusion of youth to the Lakers or Spurs would be a very welcome addition to those franchises allowing them to compete with the younger teams in the playoffs (i.e. Oklahoma City Thunder).  

But the cost for Smith may be too high to take on long-term.  He currently makes over $13 million dollars in salary and at age 27, is just starting to enter his physical prime.  It would be hard to imagine any team being able to convince him to stay after a trade from the Hawks for anything less than $18 million per year, which is just so close to the max as it is, that I would be hard-pressed not to say that more than one team will offer him the max.  It's just the nature of inflation in the NBA.  Perhaps $20 million for Josh Smith is fair, so let’s make this hypothetical: what is LeBron James really worth to the league and the Miami Heat in salary per year?  Without being able to recall the source, I have heard LeBron, between tickets, merchandise, and marketing, is probably worth between $35 million and $50 million in payroll dollars to a franchise per year simply because of the high potential revenue streams that he provides.  But under the CBA rules, LeBron can only earn a max, $20 million per year (he actually makes less since he took less money to join the Heat, a fact most people do not credit him with).  So by capping what the top players in the NBA can earn, naturally lesser players will come within the max number by virtue of demand (NBA teams) being higher than supply (true NBA stars).          
Potential Spurs-Hawks Trade

Spurs receive: Josh Smith and Anthony Morrow
Hawks Receive: Tiago Splitter/DeJuan Blair/Nando de Colo/Stephen Jackson plus a first round pick and $3 million in cash.

It's not the sexy big name trade that someone like a Josh Smith would bring back in return, but in this deal the Hawks get two young bigs, a young, cheap point guard, and a large expiring contract in Jackson at about $10 million dollars.  Looking at the roster, it’s easy to spot the number of players on the Hawks’ roster set to expire.  Take out Smith and Morrow for the trade and between Jackson (from the Spurs), Devin Harris, Zaza Pachulia, Kyle Korver, Johan Petro,Ivan Johnson, and Anthony Tolliver you can see they would have roughly $36 million coming off the books for 2014, while holding a starting core of Teague, Marvin Williams, Al Horford, and Splitter.  Being in the Eastern Conference, where competition isn't the best, and the amount of money to play with for the upcoming free agent classes, the Hawks can set themselves up for a relatively, short rebuilding phase. 

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