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Essay: Josh Smith Is Predictable Money

We pretend like basketball is something we can predict. That we know how games are going to go, how players are going to perform, and who will be victorious in the end. This isn’t like football, where the season is so short and the game so physical that having a “bad day” could mean a ticket to the playoffs or not. It’s also not like baseball, where there’s so many games, a team could have dozens of hot or cold streaks in just a couple of months. Basketball can’t even be compared to hockey, because it’s so low-scoring, it could very well come down to a guy being in the right place at the right time, no matter how good or bad the team is. With basketball, the ball don’t lie. You can watch every play, see every movement from every player, and know how things are going to go. You know how the teams are going to match up. That’s not to say an inferior team can’t win, it happens all the time. Except you know that when it counts, they won’t win. The other team  is better, because they play better, and usually, because they want it more.

There are exceptions. Jeremy Lin was quite a surprise last season, but we can chalk that up to either poor scouting, right place/right time, and the fact that Jeremy just got better. He’s come back to Earth now, but still shows that incredible skill on occasion. I’m sure not many people predicted the Lakers doing this poorly, though we knew they’d still be human. We saw the depth of their bench (none), and looking at how a previous super team worked out (the Heat, duh), we knew that it’d probably take a year before things really clicked.

Of course, nobody predicted how much Jim Buss would shit the bed and panic, but that’s another story for another time. On the subject of predictability in the NBA, there may be nothing more so than the trade deadline. In a game that seems easier and easier to predict, fans are constantly searching for solutions to losing streaks, sudden injuries, and humps that seem impossible to get over. One of the main reasons Jason Collins is still in this league, while bouncing around from contender to contender, is because he’s able to stop certain centers from playing their best, particularly Dwight Howard. How can a guy with a 52 rating on NBA 2k13 be more coveted by a playoff team than, say, Rudy Gay? The answer is money. The answer is almost always money. It’s the reason why Josh Smith wasn’t traded before the deadline.

In retrospect, despite all the discussion surrounding his name, and the sheer volume of rumors that were out there, it shouldn’t be a surprise that Smith stayed put. Hawks GM Danny Ferry is no idiot. Why take on a bunch of contracts in a pu-pu platter of guys who won’t really help you improve? The rare exception to this would be a move like Danny Ferry made to ship off Joe Johnson, and help kickstart the rebuilding process. In return he received Johan Petro, Jordan Farmar, Anthony Morrow, DeShawn Stevenson, and Jordan Williams.

With the exception of Stevenson, all are already gone from the team, with Stevenson’s next two years on his contract being non-guaranteed. So yeah, they got basically nothing but a first round pick in a shitty draft… this year. It’s what they might have for next season that matters, because they might have the best team in the NBA. They might have Chris Paul. They might have Dwight Howard. Brandon Jennings, Manu Ginobli, Andrew Bynum, and Al Jefferson are all guys who could possibly end up with the Hawks. Heck, maybe a couple of these guys could.

That’s because The Hawks will have less than 19 million dollars on the books for this upcoming offseason. That’s it. Al Horford, Lou Williams, and rookie John Jenkins will be the only players with guaranteed contracts. That leaves room for at least one max contract, and if it’s a big enough name, who knows who’d be willing to play for less for a shot at a ring? The Cleveland Cavaliers pulled off a similar move, no surprise as GM Chris Grant worked directly under Ferry until the latter’s resignation in 2010.

Now, Cleveland has 32 million dollars in guaranteed contracts this summer, but it’s the players signed to those contracts that matter: Kyrie Irving, Anderson Varejao, Dion Waiters, Tristan Thompson, Tyler Zeller, Marreese Speights, and Alonzo Gee, with Irving, Waiters, Thompson, and Zeller all playing on rookie contracts. They’d be even sweeter off for the next off-season, with even more contracts off the books, and perhaps the return of Lebron, as the King himself has publicly teased.

So why would a team ever pay the maximum for a guy like Josh Smith, who is an All-Star caliber with poor decision-making skills who has shown no interest in being a team leader, and who’s skills have plateaued? Because this league is all about the haves and the have-nots. It’s about who you can put on the marquee to make money. As an owner, giving a talented, well-known player huge money really isn’t that much of a risk. Josh Smith will draw enough attention and buzz around any team he goes to, so the sales of tickets and merchandise will rise, and that’s the real bottom line for team owners. Even if you end up losing, you can keep baiting fans into buying tickets by drafting touted players, making trades, LOOKING better than you did the prior year, even if that facade is broken come playoff time, when you’ve put together another 7-seed that’s getting bounced in the first round.

Of course, there’s a reason Josh Smith can’t come back to Atlanta. The long con that was Johnson/Smith/Horford dried up at least a year before Johnson was traded to Brooklyn. The fans caught on, and tickets weren’t being sold. It took years for that to happen though, and as an owner, if you’re getting years of price-gouged tickets being sold to duped fans, buying 30-dollar t-shirts and 5-dollar hot dogs to watch your team lose by 15 to the Heats and Thunders of the league. The added bonus, of course, is that if your team is actually good, then you don’t look like an idiot for giving Josh Smith all that money! But you have to be really good. The Bulls are learning this the hard way *COUGH* Carlos Boozer *COUGH*.

What the player get out of this though? Uh, money. They get money out of this. “Sure, sure,” you say, “but won’t they look like douchebags for accepting so much money even while losing? Won’t the fans resent them?” Well, maybe. Depends on the player. Kobe Bryant is set to get about 30 million next year. But a) he has rings and, more importantly, b) he looks like he’s trying really hard not to lose. When you see Dwight Howard jack up 15-footers while double teamed when the Lakers are down by 9 with 2:30 left to play, then not hustle back on defense and smile and goof off in the huddle, yeah, that’s pretty fucking infuriating. But because Kobe, Derrick Rose, Kevin Durant, and other truly great players never, ever quit, and are violently ill with competition, you don’t mind.

Why do you think Dwight smiles, then? Because he’s getting paid a lot of money to play his favorite sport for 7-9 months, then getting to do whatever the fuck he wants during the summer, all while being young, ripped as hell, swingin a big dick (probably, right?) surrounded by beautiful women, beautiful homes, beautiful cars, and adoring fans. I mean, c’mon, I’d be starstruck as hell if I ever met Dwight, and I think he’s an asshole. The point is, Dwight’s not sweatin’ when freaking Byron Mullens drops a three in his face in the second quarter when the Lakers are up 13. He probably should, but it’s hard to blame him when he doesn’t.

So don’t be surprised when Josh Smith gets overpaid. Don’t be surprised when either the Heat or Spurs win the title, despite not having a single player signed to a max deal. Most importantly, don’t be surprised when the answer to all your questions – “Why didn’t we sign that guy?” “Why didn’t we trade for that guy?” “Why did we give that guy such a big contract?” “Why aren’t we getting better?” – turns out to be what it always is: money.

Categories: Essays
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