Taking a look at whether the Celtics have enough pieces to make a sign-and-trade work for Josh Smith

In a recent column, Gary Washburn of the Boston Globe had this to say about the Hawks handling of impending free agent Josh Smith this summer.

Atlanta coach Larry Drew is awaiting his fate, but with the Hawks having eight free agents, expect GM Danny Ferry to make wholesale changes. And the Hawks likely won’t allow Josh Smith to walk without compensation. To attract more suitors, the club likely will offer Smith on sign-and-trade deals. However, Smith is seeking the maximum..

Washburn isn't reporting that the Hawks will sign-and-trade Smith, but raises the possibility, and it makes sense. After all, a sign-and-trade is the only way Smith can join a team over the cap (something many contenders have in common), and the Hawks would have the ability to receive compensation in the deal, something they wouldn't get if Smith simply signs with another team.

Of course, Smith has long been the object of Celtics fans eyes. His athleticism, defensive ability, and long standing interest in joining the C's because of his close relationship with Rajon Rondo have always seemingly made him a match for the post-big 3 era.

With Smith finally hitting the free agent market this summer, the Celtics are well over the cap (unless Kevin Garnett retires while Paul Pierce is amnestied), meaning the team will need to reach agreement with the Hawks on a S&T for Smith to end up in Celtics green.

To see if this is possible, I figured we could go through a few questions on the sign-and-trade process, and whether Smith has any realistic possibility to be in Boston come opening night 2013.

Question #1: What is a Sign-and-Trade?

Let's start simple, and talk about the actual sign and trade. The concept is simple, the players former team signs the player to a deal, and then trades him to another team for players and/or draft picks. In the past, sign-and-trades had the ability to help both the player and his former team, as the player could receive extra money in the deal (thanks to his bird rights transferring to his team (Bird rights are a way for teams to keep their players by being able to offer them more money than opposing teams)) and the team could receive compensation for the player. It was a win-win. However, the 2011 CBA changed the ruling on sign-and trades, and now Smith can't make any extra money in the deal. If Smith signs with any team besides Atlanta, his "maximum" contract is a 4 year deal worth approximately 75 million dollars (30% of the cap plus 4.5% annual raises). Therefore if J-Smoove wants to sign with a team that has the requisite cap space to sign him, a S&T makes little sense for the team he's going to. It's only if Smith wants to go to a team without space (aka the Celtics) when the sign-and trade comes into play.

Question #2: Would the Celtics and Hawks need to balance salaries in a sign-and-trade?

Yes. Smith's cap number would be approximately $18 million for next year, and the Celtics would need to trade the Hawks approximately $14.5 million in salary for the deal to work under NBA rules (The Celtics can acquire 125% of the salary they trade). Of course there are a lot of ways to reach $14.5 million in salary..

Question #3: Well let's just build the deal around Brandon Bass, Jason Terry and Courtney Lee! They make like $14.5 million combined, right?

Why yes they do (more like $17, but that would work as well). Hawks GM Danny Ferry would also be chased out of Atlanta by all 17 Hawks fans if he dealt Smith for a bunch of overpaid role players. Here's the thing..if Atlanta is losing Smith they need to either acquire cap space, or acquire assets. If they simply let him leave, they acquire no assets, but they do get cap space. If they can deal him for good young players and expiring contracts, they'd acquire assets, and eventually (1-2 years down the road maybe) they'd acquire cap space.

If the Hawks deal Smith for the Bass/Lee/Terry trio, they acquire no real assets and they lose out on cap space for 2 years before Bass and Terry's contracts expire. It would make far more sense to simply let Smith leave and use his cap space on another free agent hitting the market, or save it for future years. Overpaid role players aren't something teams trade for unless there is something there to sweeten the pot. Stop living in a dream world.

Question #4: Ok jerk, then how do we "sweeten the pot", and still build the deal around Bass/Lee/Terry?

This is where it gets tricky. Just how much does Atlanta like Avery Bradley and/or Jared Sullinger? If they like them a lot, maybe they take one of them along two out of three of the Bass/Lee/Terry grouping and a deal goes down.

Of course the it becomes a question of whether or not the Celtics would pay that steep a price. Is Smith really worth a max deal and either Sullinger or Bradley? I personally say no as Smith doesn't seem like a great bet to age well (players who rely on athleticism rather than pure basketball skill/intelligence age poorly in most cases), but it's a question worth asking.

Question #5: Well is there any other player on the roster we could build the deal around?

There are two other realistic building blocks for the deal.

One is Jeff Green (along with one out of three in the Lee/Bass/Terry group). Green has a $9 million cap hit and played really well in the 2nd half of this season, which had to have raised his value across the league. If Ferry thinks he can build around Green, paying him $26 million over the next 3 years really isn't a bad deal at all. However, considering Green's career arc, that's a major gamble by Ferry and the Hawks.

The other is Paul Pierce. At the deadline, Danny Ainge reportedly said no to a Pierce and a 1st round pick for Smith deal, deciding that was too steep of a price. That could possibly be on the table again, but it's unlikely that Ainge will have changed his mind. The Hawks wouldn't take a simple Pierce for Smith swap as they would be going into rebuild mode without Pierce, and paying him $15 million, even for only one season, makes no sense. The 1st round pick could make that palatable, however that is a really expensive price to pay for a mid-late first rounder. This seems really unlikely.

Of course, the Celtics could try and make a three-team deal work, as they almost did in February. Jeff Clark of Celtics blog did a great job of breaking down that possibility here, but the number of teams ready to give up viable assets for Pierce at this stage of his career is not very high. It's possible, but not plausible.

Question #6: If I were Danny Ainge, what's the most I'd give up for Smith?

Another tough one here, man you guys are really good at asking questions! I just can't get behind a Rondo-Smith rebuild project. Not while paying Smith nearly $20 million dollars a year, and certainly not if the Celtics have to give up real life assets as well. So for me, it's a pass.

However, a better question might be, what's a fair deal for Smith's talents? If I'm the Hawks I'm either taking the cap space, or the Celtics are giving me Bass, Terry and Bradley. Bass and Terry are better than taking on Lee, because they have only two years remaining compared to Lee's three. Bradley could then be paired with Jeff Teague, would give Atlanta a viable backcourt for the foreseeable future, and with all of their other expiring deals they'd still have some cap room to work with.

There's also a pretty good chance that Terry would request a buyout from Atlanta to go to a contender, and the Hawks could recoup a good chunk of his $5 million cap hit.

Question #7: Are there any other cap related drawbacks of acquiring Smith?

Why yes there is. If a team completes a sign and trade, they then cannot go more than $4 million over the luxury tax the next season (the luxury tax apron). They basically have a hard cap on their spending. This past season, the luxury tax was $70.3 million, meaning the C's couldn't go above $74.3 million. The NBA is expecting a "slight raise" in that number next year, but basically the Celts would be working with a hard cap of $75 million next season.

What does that mean? Well if they were able to pull off a deal in which they trade $15 million worth of salaries, and Smith makes $18 million next year, their cap number would rise to about $76 million. This is before draft picks and minimum salary players, meaning the Celtics would be forced to trim money. The only realistic way to do that? Amnesty (or decline the option on) Paul Pierce. That would then give the Celts wiggle room to sign picks, bring in a minimum salary free agent or two, and perhaps even use the mid-level exception.

However anyone with dreams of a Rondo/Pierce/Green/Smith/Garnett starting five..it's borderline impossible.

Bonus Question: Ok all the details are on the table, so what's the bottom line in all of this Smith nonsense?

Smith is a good player, he really is. Plus he's one of the few big name guys who would be interesting in Boston, which automatically makes him worth a look.

But at the end of the day, he's just not worth the trouble. Even on the open market it may be tough for him to get a max contract, and that's before you come up with compensation, AND on top of everything else, force yourself into a hard cap for next season. If this were LeBron, sure, you do whatever it takes and sacrifice throughout the rest of the roster. But for Josh Smith? It just doesn't make sense.

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