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Making Sense of the Josh Smith Trade

The Clippers traded Josh Smith for nothing. Does it matter?

Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

So, the entire Josh Smith situation has been undeniably weird, with some extremely strong opinions on both sides of the issue.  I'm going to make a balanced effort at dissecting this trade.  First, let's dismiss all the minor parts: nobody's draft rights matter.  Even if one of those guys ends up being important, it's almost certainly unforeseeable considering both players are in their 30s and have never played in the NBA.

The only relevant pieces in this deal are Josh Smith and the cash that the Clippers sent to Houston.  We don't know how much cash but that doesn't really matter.  As long as the Clippers saved money in the deal, it doesn't matter much for our purposes if they saved $1 or $2,000,000--it was a money-saving trade.  The way that they saved the money, for anyone asking, is as follows: Josh Smith has a guaranteed contract.  The Clippers, as taxpayers, were paying an additional penalty on Smith's salary.  If they had cut him, they would have had to continue paying that salary and penalty for the remainder of the season.  Instead, by trading him, that cap hit and penalty comes off of their books and goes onto Houston's.  From a basketball perspective, this is essentially irrelevant, but from a pocketbook perspective, it helps a little (depending on how much money they sent to Houston to subsidize the move).  For whatever it's worth, I heard that the Clippers sent money to Houston to cover Smith's salary--meaning they're only saving the tax penalty, not the salary money.

Saying that signing a new player undoes this is partially true, partially untrue, and partially misleading.  The new player will have a salary, and that salary will have cap penalties, however he will only make a pro-rated salary for the games he plays, less than Smith's full-season salary and tax penalty (had Smith been cut).  Ultimately, this trade will save the Clippers some money, but saving money wasn't really the point--the point was clearing a roster spot and eliminating a guy when there were rumblings of locker room issues.

Briefly, on the locker room issues: there weren't explicit reports outside of a couple of incidents, but it's not far-fetched to believe that a guy who is known to have his issues and who was known to have had incidents on this team wasn't great to have around after he had been benched.  I won't go too far to speculate or condemn Smith without concrete stuff to share, but it's definitely a notable aspect of the deal that's worth consideration

The real reason the Clippers made this trade was some combination of locker room issues and freeing up a roster spot.  Due to the current roster composition, it seems to me that this spot has to go to a big man.  The Clippers are currently using 3 roster spots on traditional bigs, and 11 on perimeter players (including Pierce, even though he plays PF).  For depth purposes, they need another big man.  Theoretically, they could sign perimeter players to 10-day contracts and replace someone with a big man if there was an injury to Griffin, Jordan, or Aldrich, but the likelihood of signing an impact perimeter player when there are already too many average players available seems slim.

So, it seems that, for whatever reasoning, the Clippers made the decision to look for a different depth big man than Josh Smith.  Were they looking for a different type of player?  Were they trying to accommodate Smith by sending him to Houston, where he wanted to be?  Were they eliminating a locker room problem?  We can only speculate as to Doc's reasoning, but those seem to be the most likely and popular theories.  Once the Clippers decide to look for a different depth big man, Smith makes the most sense to release, because other than him, you have the 10 guys who are in the rotation, Lance Stephenson (who was ahead of Smith in the rotation and has a $9,000,000 expiring contract with trade value), and two prospects.

If the Clippers had cut Smith rather than traded him, it's incredibly likely that he would have ended up in Houston anyway.  I highly doubt that anyone is claiming Josh Smith off of the waiver wire in 2016, especially since his camp would have made it known that he wanted to end up with the Rockets, and of course Houston would have signed him once he cleared waivers.  So, if you're cutting Smith anyway, and Houston is ending up with him anyway, why not trade him there instead to save a little bit of money (and, to an extent, look like the "good guys" for accommodating him by sending him back to Houston)?

That's why trading Smith to Houston makes sense, even though it's a weird deal on the surface.  You take a guy who you're going to cut anyway, and trade him to the team that's going to get him anyway, and save some money.  The question shouldn't be with the Clippers' execution, but rather with the premise.  It's hard to argue with the logic of moving Smith given the following two assumptions: the Clippers had decided to move on, and Smith was ending up with Houston anyway.

The latter is pretty safe.  The former is as well, but gets a little more complicated when we question if deciding to move on from Smith was the right move.  Without knowing the full picture of what locker room issues Smith was or wasn't causing, or Doc's intentions to appease Smith by allowing him to go back to Houston, it's hard to fully criticize or endorse this deal.  The goal of this post wasn't to do either, but rather to walk through the reasoning.

The last criticism that needs to be addressed is the issue of sending Smith to Houston, of all places.  You know, the team that eliminated the Clippers from the playoffs last season, largely due to Smith's contributions.  What if the Clippers should play Houston again?  Did Doc Rivers just help out a conference rival, and potential playoff opponent, for free?  The obvious answer is yes, but there's at least a little qualifying to do to that statement.

There's two main counterarguments to anyone who would condemn Doc for assisting Houston.  Whether or not these are satisfactory, I'm not sure, but they're definitely worth pondering when pondering this trade.  First, there's a limited chance that the Clippers and Houston will face off in the playoffs.  The Rockets have struggled mightily this season, and currently sit in 7th place, setting them up for a 2-7 match-up with San Antonio.  The Clippers, on the other hand, are in 4th, lineup up for a 4-5 match-up with, of course, Memphis.  It's still early in the season, however, and there's room for movement in the standings.  The Clippers are only 3 losses behind Oklahoma City for the 3rd seed, and Houston is now only 1 loss away from tying Dallas for the 6th seed and 2 losses behind 5th-seeded Memphis, providing a chance for 3-6 and 4-5 match-ups featuring LAC and Houston.  It's unlikely but certainly possible.

The other argument is that whether or not the Clippers are successful this year has nothing to do with Houston.  In order to achieve their goal, the Clippers will need to defeat Golden State and/or San Antonio, and in order to do that, they can only worry about themselves and those two.  If Houston ends up beating the Clippers in a 3-6 first round match-up, and Josh Smith was the difference, it won't matter because if this team falls to that, they'll never make it past the Warriors or Spurs.  But if this Clippers team does do their best internally to get to the point where they can contend with, and beat, those two historic teams, then whether or not Houston has Josh Smith and whether or not the Clippers end up playing them in the first round won't matter much at all.