Sixers get: Ish Smith
Pelicans get: Denver’s 2016 second round pick, Philadelphia’s 2017 second round pick
Yesterday, the 76ers acquired journeyman point guard Ish Smith from the Pelicans in exchange for two second round picks. Smith started 14 games for Philadelphia last year, and played relatively well. Nerlens Noel called him the “first true point-guard” he had played with, and Noel had a case. After shuffling through Michael Carter-Williams, Tony Wroten, and Isaiah Canaan at the point, Smith’s ability to penetrate the defense and effectively distribute the ball to teammates was a revelation in Philly. Last year, he had the sixth highest assist rate in the league at 38.8%, according to stats.nba.com (he’s sixth again this year). In a league loaded with athletic point guards, Smith’s speed and quickness have allowed him to excel at times despite a suspect jump shot. Safe to say, I’m bullish on Smith’s game. Nonetheless, the deal was unequivocally minor, yet analyzing it can provide some insight into the directions and thought processes of the two front offices involved.
From the Sixers’ perspective, this trade represents a stark contrast to their philosophy under general manager Sam Hinkie. Hinkie’s tenure has been defined by value. The Sixers have gotten good value in every move they’ve made since his arrival in 2013. Getting two lottery picks for Jrue Holiday, forcing Orlando to give up a future first rounder to trade up two spots for Elfrid Payton, extracting a first round pick, Nik Stauskas, and multiple draft pick swap rights from Sacramento in a salary dump, and getting Robert Covington on a 4-year minimum contract are all perfect examples. Under Hinkie, Philly has created value in every deal the team has made.
This trade is a departure from that strategy. Smith is only under contract through the end of the year, which puts a hard cap on the value that he can provide to the team. Giving up two draft picks that will very likely fall in the early 2nd round is assuredly poor value when the return is 4 months of Ish Smith’s services, especially when the playoffs are well out of reach. Those second round picks are highly cost-controlled assets, which when taken with the probability of the players chosen with those picks developing into productive players, carry a significant monetary value. From a market perspective, high second round picks have been bought and sold for at least $2 million dollars over the last few years. So, conservatively, the Sixers paid $4 million to get Smith, although the real value is probably much higher.
Making the move doubly interesting from Philadelphia’s perspective is that after Smith’s stint with the Sixers in 2014-15, he became a free agent in the offseason. Smith went on to sign a non-guaranteed contract with the Wizards, which is a good indication that if the Sixers truly wanted Smith in the offseason, they could have had him with an offer of a guaranteed contract. Philly had another chance to get Smith at no cost aside from his minimum salary when Washington waived him before the regular season began. Again, they declined despite being under the league’s salary floor. It stands to reason then, that the Sixers’ interest in Smith was not very high as recently as the beginning of this season.
So, what changed? Philadelphia hired Jerry Colangelo to be the Chairman of Basketball Operations, making him Hinkie’s superior, which suggests there is a paradigm shift happening in the team’s front office. Smith’s distribution skills would seemingly help the Philly’s offense work more cohesively as a unit, which in theory would help their young players develop. In this way, Smith’s value to Philly lies in the anticipated effect he could have on his teammates’ progression because in terms of wins added he’s surely not worth the price Philly paid. Even in this one personnel move, the team appears to have embraced that young players are not developing in a vacuum, that how they’re playing and the habits they’re learning matter, and that acquiring players that fit this model has added developmental value, which is a clear deviation from the recent past. In the end, the trade signals that Colangelo has the final say in decision making and is the new architect of the Philadelphia 76ers.
When the Pelicans claimed Smith off waivers at the beginning of the year, they were desperate for point guard help because of injuries to Jrue Holiday and Norris Cole. In his role, Smith performed well for New Orleans, averaging nearly 9 points and 6 assists in just 22 minutes per game according to basketball-reference.com. However, Holiday is easing his way off his minutes restriction and Cole has recovered from injury. Plus, Alvin Gentry has been placing much of the team’s lead guard duties in Tyreke Evans’s hands. With all of these options, the Pelicans didn’t have a need for Smith anymore. Thus, getting two draft picks that are projected to be in the 30s is a coup d’etat in exchange for a guy that was no longer receiving significant minutes and is only under contract until the end of the year.
Additionally, and possibly more importantly, the move could be a sign of the front office transforming its focus. After finishing with the 8th seed in the Western Conference a year ago, New Orleans began the 2015-16 season with lofty expectations. ESPN’s preseason forecast had them projected to win 47 games and finish 7th in the West. That hope, along the Pelicans’ playoff chances, has evaporated. They have the 4th worst record in the league, only ahead of the Lakers, Sixers, and Nets. ESPN’s BPI, a projection system based on point differential that is adjusted for components like strength of schedule, travel, and preseason expectations, gives them a 17% chance of making the playoffs. Their outlook for this season is gloomy to say the least.
So, regardless of how productive Smith was, cashing his present value into futures in the form of draft picks is exactly the kind of forward oriented thinking that the Pelicans must rely on to turn this nightmare of a season into a building block for the future.
Going forward, the Pelicans should look to trade Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson, who are in the final years of their respective contracts. Both are 38% career 3-point shooters, well above the league average, and could be useful pieces for contending teams looking to add spacing. In return, the Pelicans should target draft picks or players under contract beyond this year. Yahoo Sports’s Shams Charania reported that there was interest from the Suns and Pelicans in structuring a deal around Anderson and disgruntled Suns forward Markieff Morris. While Morris has been sulky since Phoenix traded away his twin brother Marcus, he has historically been a productive player and is on a team-friendly contract that runs through 2018-19. Players like Morris, whose value extends beyond this year, should be the primary targets for the Pelicans front office.
In 2012, the Pelicans won the lottery and landed a once-in-a-generation player. Now, Anthony Davis is under contract until 2020-21, which means that Pelicans only have a finite amount of time to capitalize on this tremendous fortune. The trade of Ish Smith must be the first step in the process of retooling the roster with players under contract for multiple years and restocking the cupboard of draft picks that has recently been barren. In short, the Pelicans must recalibrate their focus toward the future, and quickly, before it’s too late.