Joe Dumars wanted Josh Smith, and he got Josh Smith.
Whatever you think about Smith’s abilities or how they fit with Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe in a supersized frontcourt, you have to respect Dumars’ ability to leave his comfort zone to land the free agent he coveted most.
The three biggest contracts Dumars has ever given another team’s free agent – Chauncey Billups, Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva – were agreed to July 1, the first day free agents can negotiate with other teams. For better or worse, Dumars has chosen his players and then spent what it took to get them.
This year wasn’t so simple.
The Pistons made Josh Smith their No. 1 target, waited out a dalliance between Smith and Dwight Howard, saw teams that missed on Howard dive headfirst into the Smith mix and then still signed him. This is not how Dumars usually operates, but just as he’s spoken of appreciating lengthier coaching searches under Tom Gores, perhaps Dumars has learned how to adapt to a slow courting process in free agency.
But Dumars’ waiting came with a price. Whether it’s $54 million or $56 million for four years, Smith’s contract will be the largest in terms annual salary ever handed out by the Pistons.
The last time Dumars gave out such large contracts in terms of total dollars, Billups and Rasheed Wallace, two players already on the team, were on the receiving end. Dumars saw those players daily, and though Wallace was just in Detroit for a partial season before re-signing, that included a long play run. Dumars’ was also in position to give a larger contract to another player he saw daily, Ben Wallace, but het let Wallace flee to Chicago for $60 million over four years.
Does Dumars understand Smith as well?
This is The Summer of Truth for Dumars, his job seemingly on the line unless the Pistons make the playoffs next season. Dumars traded a potentially valuable draft pick to the Bobcats just to get cap room a season sooner, and he needed to use that available money to justify freeing it at such a high cost.
Maybe Smith is exactly the player Dumars wants. Maybe Dumars and Maurice Cheeks have devised a defensive plan that makes Smith and Drummond cover for Monroe’s deficiencies. Maybe they’ve assembled an offensive system that allows Smith’s and Monroe’s passing ability to compensate for the lack of perimeter shooting. Maybe they’ve mapped out a rotation that limits the number of minutes Monroe, Drummond and Smith will play together. Maybe Cheeks knows how to soothe the mercurial Smith. Maybe more moves are lined up to make this work.
Or maybe Smith was just there.
After Smith, who is the best remaining unrestricted free agent capable of playing a perimeter position? Andrei Kirilenko? Monta Ellis? For the Pistons, and especially Dumars, it was Smith or smithereens.
This move reeks of desperation.
It might turn out well – Smith is a very talented player with some glaring flaws – because Smith offers the best opportunity for the Pistons to make the playoffs, which is exactly what Dumars need. The Pistons didn’t have a playoff team unless they significantly upgraded the roster, and Smith does that. The odds still might be low – especially if Brandon Knight is the starting point guard whose job is to run an offense that lacks floor spacing – but they’re better with Smith than without him.
Free agency isn’t just about identifying the players you want, but also actually getting the players you want. Dumars and Gores got the player they wanted, the player they believe can best help complete their plan.
It’s just the wrong plan.
I would have preferred the Pistons take a more patient approach – accepting bad contracts in exchange for draft picks (as the Jazz did in their trade with the Warriors), remaining bad for one more season and keeping their draft pick rather than sending it Charlotte in a loaded 2014 draft. Then, next summer, use the cap space to upgrade talent around a team with promising players like Drummond, Monroe, Brandon Knight, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and the 2014 first-round pick.
Dumars can’t afford to go that route, so he overpaid for Smith. Overpaying is often necessary for contending teams to keep their window open, but the Pistons aren’t contending for anything other than a first-round loss. Somehow, that result would seem to satisfy the Pistons’ powers that be.
That’s not completely Dumars’ fault. Gores is demanding a postseason berth sooner than later, and Dumars has little choice but to try to increase those odds.
Perhaps, Smith’s talent outweighs the fit concerns, the Pistons make the playoffs and Dumars bides enough time to balance the roster. That’s Dumars’ best-case scenario. Worst case, the Pistons’ next general manager inherits a team that just missed the playoffs, doesn’t have its first-round pick and is burdened by Smith’s huge contract.
Signing Smith is an expensive gamble with only modest upside.
In The Summer of Truth, we’ve learned the truth about the Pistons. They’re trying to win now, which is commendable yet shortsighted, but at least they’re headed in their chosen direction as quickly as possible
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