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There is a growing consensus that Josh Smith will be traded by the Thursday deadline. The team that wins the sweepstakes will be giving up a lot in the trade and to sign him in July. Is he worth it?
Josh Smith is the winner of the 2013 NBA He's Totally Getting Traded By The Deadline award. Consensus is building around a reality in which J-Smoove has been freed from his ATLien shackles and moved to the Celtics, the Bucks, the Nets, the Wizards, the Cavaliers, the Timberwolves -- somewhere.
But what exactly is a time trading for Smith getting, and will he be worth both whatever that team gives up to get him plus the contract he's expecting in July? Remember, Smith will be a free agent on July 1. He has said he's looking for a max deal. Given his time of service, Smith will be eligible for an estimated five-year, $97.5 million deal by the team that trades for him, assuming the league's salary cap rises as expected. (That team, however, would have some pretty amazing leverage thanks to the new collective bargaining agreement: Smith would only be eligible for an estimated four-year, $73 million contract from another team. So in theory, the team that trades for him and his Bird rights could hardball him into an $85-90 million deal over five years.)
So there are two levels here: the cost in assets to get him, and the cost in lost opportunity to sign him long-term. We have no clue what will be enough to land him in a trade. Some reports and common sense indicate the Hawks would want either young prospects, draft picks or a cheaper young star in a trade. Cheaper young stars don't get traded for Josh Smith at this point. So we're looking at young prospects, draft picks and enough expiring salary to match. The Hawks project to have a bunch of cap space -- Al Horford, Lou Williams and John Jenkins account for less than $20 million, and the cap should be around $60 million. Jeff Teague needs to get paid, unless Atlanta aims elsewhere. Because of that flexibility, the Hawks could trade for a slightly expensive youngish star (Danny Granger, if only he were healthy). But the more likely scenario is to make talent acquisitions after Smith is gone. That'll allow a greater choice.
When you look at the teams chasing Smith, most of them have young prospects and picks. Smith is not the type of talent for which you trade unprotected lottery picks. So protection should be a condition. Even for good teams. Ask the Lakers. Whether young prospects are worth it will be highly dependent on the young prospect in question. Eric Bledsoe? Avery Bradley? Derrick Williams? All potentially too good to trade for Smoove.
The cost of that fat contract Smith wants is easier to assess, but again, it's dependent on the team that risks it. Some teams, like the Timberwolves, historically have trouble signing major free agents. So landing Smith and basically promising to pay him $17 million next year and more than that in four subsequent seasons doesn't really cost a team like Minnesota a chance at landing a major free agent, because that chance didn't actually exist in the first place. The cost is in cap flexibility and other possible trades. Now consider how hard it is for a team like the Timberwolves to land a star via trade. Stars are rarely traded except in cases where free agency and the potential for losing an asset for nothing looms. In those cases, which are most of the stars being traded cases, a team like Minnesota wouldn't make the leap for fear of losing said player to free agency. Daryl Morey in Houston has shown how incredibly difficult it is to land a star by trade. The Nets have also shown how expensive it can be: Gerald Wallace cost Brooklyn the pick that became Damian Lillard, and Joe Johnson cost $90 million. So in this sense, the whole lost opportunity of landing a star via free agency or trade because the salary is tied up in Smith is a big ol' strawman for most teams, because those opportunities didn't exist anyways.
For teams like this -- most of the teams involved, excepting the C's and the Nets -- the decision must come down to whether Smith is the right fit talent-wise and whether he's worth the assets involved in the trade. Talent-wise, Smith is a player who can perform at an All-Star level when he's following the gameplan, which should involve as few jumpers as possible. He can use a strong playmaking point guard because he's not a bad catch-and-shoot player. He should be allowed to freelance on defense, because that's where his tools really shine and also because he's going to freelance regardless. He should be trusted moving the ball because he's a helluva passer for a player of his size, but again ... discourage the jumpers by having some good shooters around him. And I, for one, would love to see Smith in an up-tempo offense for a change.
We'll see which team makes the gamble on Thursday. Hopefully it ends up being a good one.
* Yahoo!'s Adrian Wojnarowski writes about Jerry Buss' legacy, and drops in a story about the time Kobe Bryant almost got traded to the Detroit Pistons. In 2007, Kobe had "demanded" a trade -- we all had thought he'd end up in Chicago -- and Jerry Buss, who died Monday, worked out a deal with Detroit and summoned Bryant to his home. Being there and being reminded of Buss' incredible, resilient success with the Lakers convinced Kobe to stay in Los Angeles. The story does its job by giving you a greater sense of the mystique of Buss. But it also produces one of the greatest what-ifs in sports history. The Lakers made the next three NBA Finals series, winning two titles. The Pistons traded Chauncey Billups for Allen Iverson and fell off the map (where they currently reside, hanging on by an Andre Drummond limb). Depending on what the Lakers took back -- Woj says the package included core players and draft picks -- could the Pistons have competed with the Celtics, Magic and Cavaliers at the top of the East? Would the Lakers have Marc Gasol right now? Would Detroit have been able to still wriggle out cap space and attract one of the 2010 free agent stars? Such a move wouldn't have altered the two franchises -- it would have altered the league. Alas, the Lakers remained the Lakers and have two more rings because it didn't happen.