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NBA PM: The Pistons’ Motivation to Cut Smith

Josh Smith wasn’t the root of the Detroit Pistons’ problems, but his departure was necessary at this point.

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The Pistons’ Motivation to Cut Smith

One of the worst kept secrets in the league was that the Detroit Pistons were unhappy with Josh Smith and eager to trade him. Smith, signed by former general manager Joe Dumars to a four-year contract worth $54 million in 2013, went from being known as an All-Star and Defensive Player of the Year snub to overpaid and inefficient seemingly instantly after putting his name on the dotted line that summer. Because of that, though, the trade market was extremely bare for him. Only the Sacramento Kings showed any real interest, and they were only offering veterans with multiple years left on their deals in return.

So, in one of the more shocking moves of the season so far, the Pistons exercised their right to stretch Smith’s contract and waive him from the roster. He’s going to be paid the rest of the $13.5 million he was owed this year as scheduled, and then the remaining $27 million will be paid to him in annual payments of $5.4 million over the next five years. After clearing waivers in 48 hours, a mere formality, Smith will be an unrestricted free agent – free to sign with any team of his choosing. The Los Angeles Clippers, Miami HEAT, Houston Rockets, Dallas Mavericks and aforementioned Kings have all expressed interest in him, with the Rockets reportedly the most serious suitor. Smith’s childhood friends Dwight Howard and Rajon Rondo will serve as lead recruiters for their respective teams. For a more detailed look at Smith’s next destination, make sure to check out Lang Green’s breakdown.

On the other side of the equation is the 5-23 Pistons, who just let one of their more talented players walk for free in hopes that it could be addition by subtraction.

“This was a total team decision through discussions with ownership and Stan [Van Gundy] and our organization,” Pistons general manager Jeff Bower said to Matt Dery on Detroit Sports 105.1. “Basically we’re not happy with where we’re at with our record at 5-23 and realize we need to make changes. In those changes roles will have to be shifted, usage will have to change and we need to be able to really stress the development of our players as well. We felt given the 10-year history of Josh, given the changes that we needed to make with our team that in all fairness to him and for our team that this was probably the best way to move forward. In the process, what it does is allow Josh to be a free agent and be available to pick a situation that he best fits into and is most comfortable with, [that] can utilize his versatility and skills. It also allows us to move on with the changes we need to make as well we create significant salary cap room that we can use this summer as well. There were a lot of steps and a lot of things that went into this decision. We feel out of respect to Josh and the interest in our team this was the best solution for everyone involved. We appreciate Josh for all the things he has done for the Pistons during his time here and wish him well as he explores other opportunities.”

Smith was having a historically inefficient season for the Pistons, shooting .391 from the field, .243 from three, .468 from the charity stripe and turning it over 2.6 times a night. To his credit, he was averaging a career-best 4.7 assists a game, 1.7 blocks and 1.3 steals, and those numbers help create a belief that he can help some of the contending teams that are vying for his services. But they weren’t enough to convince Van Gundy – who has full control of the Pistons’ personnel moves – that he could fit into his system when combined with his shooting struggles. He was giving him 32 minutes a night in attempt to make it work, but it clearly wasn’t.

With a rare in-season break of four days between games, Van Gundy was ready to go in a different direction and didn’t want to have a $13.5 million player who was brought in to play a feature role disgruntled on his bench as he did so.

“This was about our team and moving forward with it, changing roles that we felt had to be changed, again having people in roles that they fit and accept is so crucial for them being successful,” Bower said. “We felt this was best for Josh and best for our team obviously to move ahead in this fashion because of the whole composite effect.

“Stan had earmarked these days to get back on the practice court with a full set of objectives and areas of improvement that we’re really looking at making progress in during this time frame. The ability to move forward at the beginning of this time frame with the practice days that we have ahead of us that all kind of fit together from the standpoint of when you do something like this or when you pull the trigger on a move like this. We wanted to maintain all of our assets moving forward. When you’re making personnel changes, you’re forced to give up assets that are valuable down the road and in future transactions. In this scenario we were able to keep all our assets, create another one of significance and give Josh the freedom to move on without any road blocks.”

The Pistons rank 28th in the league in points per 100 possessions at 97.6. Their 49.4 true shooting percentage as a team is dead last and they’re giving up 105.8 points per 100 possessions, which puts them just outside the bottom five in the league.

Truthfully, the solution to their problem probably isn’t on their roster right now. But they had a real mismatched set of pieces that could potentially fit together a bit easier with Smith gone. And, the added cap relief from his departure is going to be a much needed tool for Van Gundy to further put his imprint on the team this summer. The Pistons go from having a guaranteed total of $39.47 million on the books next year to $31.3 million, giving them around $37 million in cap space to utilize.

“Obviously all our problems didn’t go out the door,” Bower said. “Josh was not the target and the only problem. Given where we are, though, and given the need for us to re-distribute roles and re-distribute shot opportunities and usage rates of our team, that became the dominant thought. Our ability to shift the ball around and to shift how players are used is something that we didn’t feel was fair to Josh, to totally minimize his role or reduce his role and we did feel that we had to make changes similar to that to move forward. This, along with conditions of the CBA, providing stretch option for us, really minimizes the effects of waiving for him and creates another asset for us to capitalize on the next two summers.”

Bower mentioned Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Kyle Singler and Spencer Dinwiddie specifically as guys who the team really wants to evaluate over the rest of the season, but made it clear that the goal is to get to the playoffs. The Pistons, despite their horrific start, are only seven games back of the eighth-seeded Boston Celtics, who just traded their star point guard Rajon Rondo to the Dallas Mavericks. Van Gundy has never coached a team that finished with a record worse than .500 and would like to keep that streak intact if at all possible, even as unlikely as it may seem at this point.

As important as those three young players are to the Pistons’ present and future, the spotlight is really going to be put on Greg Monroe, who is set to become a free agent at season’s end. Monroe was a restricted free agent this offseason and despite multiple teams trying to facilitate sign-and-trade deals and just sign him outright, the Pistons were unwilling to let him go. Yet, they weren’t willing to meet his desired price tag on a long-term deal either, so he settled for a qualifying offer.

Inevitably, like most players who are on expiring contracts, rumors started to swirl about Monroe. He denied wanting out at all costs, and this looks to be a sign from Pistons management that they are open to the prospect of inking him to a long-term deal. If Monroe can thrive with Smith gone and help get the Pistons back on track, a four- or five-year pact could still be feasible between the two parties. Monroe is averaging 14 points and eight rebounds a game this year, right around his career average, but should be a significant boost in minutes, touches and spacing as the team takes a new direction.

The other byproduct of this move is the message that gets sent to the remaining Pistons. Smith seemed to have security with his high-dollar deal, but he’s gone and there’s nothing stopping Van Gundy from sending other guys packing if he thinks it’s for the betterment of the team. Guys are either going to get on board or be sent off. No one is safe and sometimes it takes that kind of threat to turn a team around.

Royce White Hopes to Play Again

Former Iowa State standout Royce White, infamously deemed “the worst first round pick ever” by Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey (the man who selected him) is currently out of the league and the game of basketball all together. He received a brief opportunity with the Sacramento Kings last year, but at just 23 years of age there’s reason to wonder if we’ll ever see him in the NBA again.

White’s talent has never been questioned. Blessed with great size, strength and court vision, White is undoubtedly one of the best 400 players in the world when he’s in shape and focused on basketball. However, White’s a man with a variety of other interests. He’s always been quick to correct people when they label him as a basketball player, pointing out that he’s much more than just that and is not defined by it. He also battles with anxiety, and has used his success in the game of basketball to become one of the more visible advocates of mental health rights.

However, White does miss the game and hasn’t given up hope of one day making a return to the game that he does love to play.

https://twitter.com/Highway_30/status/547142142083473408

Based on the results of his first stint in the league, which featured some very public clashes with the Rockets over the management and plan for his anxiety, White faces a long road to get back in to the NBA. The D-League could offer him a really great platform to showcase his abilities and prove his dedication, though.

Being a professional basketball player, in the NBA especially, is very demanding. If White can show that he’s up to meeting those demands, and gets back to peak conditioning level that he was at when he exploded onto the scene during his lone season at Iowa State, his hopes very well could turn into reality. The NBA is a forgiving league. There will be a team willing to give him a second chance, but it has to be earned – and it’s going to be much more difficult to earn it this go around.

Yannis Koutroupis is Basketball Insiders' Managing Site Editor and Senior Writer. He has been covering the NBA and NCAA for seven years.

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