First-round pick Pistons owe Bobcats complicates Josh Smith signing

Consensus opinion, at least outside Michigan, on the Pistons signing Josh Smith has veered negative. As I’ve written, I think that’s because Joe Dumars is still paying the price for overpaying Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva. Many are just going to assume, barring strong evidence to the contrary, any free agent Dumars signs will fail.

One national writer has taken a different approach: Rob Mahoney of The Point Forward, who wrote a sensible and reasonable article mostly praising the Smith signing. Read it. Absorb it. Cross-reference it with J.M. Poulard’s brilliant piece.

I agree with much of what Mahoney wrote, but rather than restating what he put so well – like I said, read it – I’m going to quibble with a part that I think needs more context. Mahoney:

There’s also no rush. Fretting over Smith’s fit on a team that’s still gathering assets and developing young talent is premature, especially considering that his very arrival opens up a greater breadth of options for the Pistons.

If all else fails, Smith will still be of value to other teams even it it doesn’t work out in Detroit — giving the Pistons one more high-quality trade chip than they had previously.

Redundancy isn’t some great sin for teams in construction. Value is value, and Detroit paid a fair price to pick up a talented player, explosive defender and experimental component while the younger pieces on the roster develop.

Usually, I’d be totally in favor of a young rebuilding team like the Pistons adding talent and then sorting out fit later. Premier talent – certainly, Smith qualifies – is difficult to come by.

Generally, there’s little wrong with incremental improvements once a team has acquired young talent (like Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe) if it comes through that young talent developing and the outside addition of not-old talent (like Smith).

But the top-eight protected first-round pick the Pistons owe the Bobcats next season complicates matters. The Pistons must time their surge forward in ways most teams needn’t worry about.

If the Pistons make the playoffs or land a top-eight draft pick, Smith, at least in that regard, would present no immediate downside.* But for a team that picked eighth this year, Smith offering slight improvement could really set the Pistons back. Getting a pick 9-14 and sending it to Charlotte, meaning the Pistons miss the playoffs, would be a disaster.

*Though, if the Pistons get a top-eight pick with Smith, something has likely gone extremely awry.

This doesn’t make Smith a bad signing, and the Pistons clearly believe he’ll push them all the way past the disaster zone and into the playoffs. Smith’s signing could be the Pistons timing their surge just right.

But the chance he upgrades Detroit to a pick in the 9-14 range – not all the way to the playoffs – is a fundamental risk. The Pistons, despite what Smith believes, are not a lock to make the playoffs. The Heat, Pacers, Bulls, Nets and Knicks are safe choices. After that, several teams are in the mix for the final three spots, including the Pistons.

I still like the Smith signing more than I dislike it – for many of the reasons Mahoney articulates – but there’s more downside than Mahoney acknowledges.