Free agency can be a fickle game. Big market teams will always have an advantage in luring top players thanks to deep pockets, high franchise valuations, and desirable locations. Small market teams have to pay a premium for talent, and with salary maximums in place that means offering top contracts to players who can’t earn them elsewhere. The LeBrons and Carmelos of the world aren’t going to be wowed by a $20 million per year offer from Milwaukee when they can get the same deal in Los Angeles or New York. If a small market franchise is banking on free agency to land a key piece, nailing these signings is critical.
Last offseason, two teams lured 2nd-tier free agents to less-desirable markets with huge offers. Detroit inked Josh Smith to a 4-year deal, while Al Jefferson signed in Charlotte for 3 years, with a player option on the final year. Both players are paid the same $13.5 million each year.
Each team had their own motivations for wanting to test the free agency waters. The Hornets (formerly Bobcats) had attempted to tank and build through the lottery for years, but had missed out on stars like Anthony Davis, instead landing talented but flawed players like Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Bismack Biyombo. Michael Jordan has taken a longer-term approach to team building than might have been expected, but GM Rich Cho needed to put a better product on the floor after a couple of seasons fielding some of the worst teams in history.
Unlike Charlotte, who felt the need to change course after striking out on the lottery strategy, the Pistons under Joe Dumars used free agency as a core part of their team-building strategy, creating cap space every few years to replenish their team. This practice yielded the notoriously bad Ben Gordon/Charlie Villanueva duo in 2009, but Dumars rolled the dice again in 2013 with Smith and Brandon Jennings. They were brought in to augment promising young players Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe while jump-starting the rebuild that had been languishing since ‘09.
The results for each team couldn’t have been more different. Charlotte rode Jefferson’s 3rd team All-NBA season to a surprise playoff berth with a scrappy team, while Smith struggled mightily in Detroit, submitting his worst season in years. That seems simple enough – Charlotte won their free agency gamble and Detroit lost theirs.
But the nuances of each player’s situation shed light on what it takes for a team outside of the league’s glamour markets to win. Charlotte had a specific plan for Big Al. His post scoring propped up an offense that otherwise would have been one of the absolute worst in the league. Attempts were made to paper over the team’s lack of shooting to provide as much space for his post ups as possible, including the insertion of Josh McRoberts at power forward. Only so much could be done with the lack of shooting available, but the Hornets avoided the offensive efficiency cellar thanks to the addition of Jefferson.
That was enough of an improvement to make the playoffs given the huge leaps the squad made defensively, moving from dead last in the league two years running to 5th overall. This improvement occurred based almost exclusively due to scheme changes, and it came even when adding a known liability at a key position in Jefferson. Head coach Steve Clifford tweaked his defensive strategy to account for Al’s lack of mobility. All told, adding Jefferson and managing one of the best defenses in the league is one of the biggest surprises of last season. Charlotte found ways to maximize his strengths and hide his weaknesses.
Detroit, on the other hand, seemed at times to be actively looking for ways to get the worst out of Smith. His habit of hoisting long jumpers without any hope of making them caused his last fan-base to yell “NO!!!” every time he wound up from 21 feet? Play him with two post players who force him outside where he will be compelled to shoot constantly! He excels as a weakside defender in the post, thwarting drives with his shot-blocking? Drag him away from the paint and make him guard opposing perimeter players!
The Pistons could not have put Smith in a worse position, and his many weaknesses shone brightly on a team with no spacing and a glut in the paint. Defensively he is at his best at power forward, patrolling the paint or jumping out to squash pick and rolls with his better-than-average quickness for a 4. When forced to guard small forwards his quickness became a liability, and the weakside shot-blocking was all but extinguished. On the other end playing him in the post affords several advantages – his shooting habits aren’t indulged, his quickness and smart passing are maximized, and he can use his explosiveness to finish rolls, lobs, and face up drives with authority.
Smith isn’t nearly as bad as he seemed last year, but unless he (or one of the Monroe/Drummond duo) changes teams, it’s hard to see him playing any better. Meanwhile the Hornets are hoping to improve on their strong showing last season by further building around Jefferson. They’ve added small-ball stretch 4 Marvin Williams and the mercurial talents of Lance Stephenson to open up the floor more for Jefferson (and generally bring in more talent).
The Smith/Jennings duo was the final straw for Detroit, who moved on from Dumars as GM in favor of Stan Van Gundy. It remains to be seen whether Smith will be on the roster on opening night, but it is clear that he serves as yet another cautionary tale. Small market teams looking to make a splash in free agency should take note – if they want to be part of a success story, they’ll need to commit to putting their top signing in a position to actually succeed, just like Jefferson has in the Queen City.