On Chris Smith and nepotism in the NBA
This week, Adrian Wojnarowski posted an article about the Knicks' struggles that includes a fun quote about reserve guard, Chris Smith.
The Smith part, intended as an aside to the main article, has proven to itself be rather notable. It is notable because it is memorable, and it is memorable because it is said with such damning conviction in a style so forceful and a manner so derogatory, one that you just do not see used about specific NBA players. Smith, it is said, is not even good enough for the D-League, and, worse still, "maybe the worst player in the history of the [NBA] summer league."
These criticisms of Smith are exaggerated. It is true that he was given ample opportunity to perform in summer league and was very ineffective with it, but the conclusions the quotes draw for you are not proven by this alone, nor are they especially close to being ultimate proof. The quotes are a fun way of piling on to Smith, to accord with the narrative designed to make Smith - and, by proxy, the Knicks - look as bad as possible.
Smith is 26-years-old, undersized for his position, and below average in many facets of the game, yet he has decent speed and a good jump-shot with NBA calibre range. The last 100 or so players in the NBA are interchangeable with about 150 or so players outside of it, which is why they are all turned over so frequently, and thus many players either barely in or barely outside of the NBA. And even if it is only one, Smith has one NBA calibre skill which puts him vaguely near this conversation. He is not a nobody - he was a solid starter on a national championship winning team. It is not much, but it is something, rather than the nothing the anonymous quotes want you to believe.
That said, this core narrative - that Smith only has a roster spot because his brother J.R. Smith is on the team - is almost certainly true. This is particularly true in light of two important facts - firstly, Smith is not only signed to a contract, but one that has already become guaranteed. It became guaranteed on October 30th, and thus he is likely here for a while. And secondly, this is also not the first time this has happened.
Prior to all this drama, New York signed Smith much more quietly to a contract for last year's training camp. Like this year's edition, this contract was completely unguaranteed, becoming fully guaranteed only if Smith was not waived on or before November 1st - in actuality, Smith was waived October 25th. However, the contract he signed did not contain an Exhibit 9, a contract provision which protects teams financially when their unguaranteed players get injured. So when Smith injured his knee in training camp, the Knicks, by rule, had to pay his unguaranteed contract until he got healthy, for up to a maximum of one season.
With Smith missing the whole season due to this injury - one which was deemed to have been caused in the exercise of team duty - New York were thereby obliged by rule to pay him $473,604 in salary. It further cost them a $854,389 in luxury tax purely on that amount, meaning a greater than $1.3 million expense last year for a player that never suited up for them.
They will also now be paying him this year, and it is going to cost even more than previous reports suggest. New York owes Smith $490,180 in salary for this season (despite being paid for last season, Smith never spent a day on the regular season roster, thus he technically still has zero years of service and gets a rookie minimum salary), plus the subsequent luxury tax. Rookies or sophomores signed to minimum salary contracts are nonetheless regarded as being third year players for tax purposes - therefore, for tax permutations, Smith is treated as though he was paid $884,293. It is this amount that the Knicks are taxed on - with this season being the first of the new harsher luxury tax penalties, the Knicks, currently over $17 million over the tax threshold, are thus set to be charged $3.25 for every $1 dollar over the threshold that they are. In tax alone, then, Smith will cost $2,873,952, for a total cost of nearly $3.4 million, for a player they suipposedly do not think is worthy even of the minor league.
All this is purely for the sake of a nepotistic favor to a player already costing them over $20 million himself after tax. So, is it worth it? Perhaps.
The NBA is no stranger to nepotism, both on the court and in its coaching/executive ranks. This makes it like every other industry in the world, and thus it is something with which we need to come to peace. Nepotism is a thing that happens. So is mutual backscratching, the doing of favors for those you want something from in term. Again, this is life.
This nepotism normally manifests itself through summer league, where the act of hooking up your player's sibling with a spot on the essentially meaningless but ultimately prideful roster is a long established art form. We have at various times seen Chris Bosh's brother Joel on the Raptors (2008), Kevin Durant's brother Tony play with the Thunder (2009), and Carlos Boozer's brother Charles with the Bulls (2013). Furthermore, C.J. Watson's brother Kashif Watson has twice been invited to a summer league by a team simultaneously trying to re-sign C.J. as a free agent - with the Warriors in 2010, and with the Nets this year. (Only once did it work.)
These players were not in any possible way going to try out for the NBA on their own merits as players. For both Durant (a bench player for Towson) and Bosh (a bench player for Alabama State), this was the only professional gig of their lives, both before and since. And for Boozer, there has only been one other, a short stay in the permanently tumultuous and basically amateurish ABA. They were there to do a job - to curry favor with Big Bro, to show him some love, to show the player the kind of 'loyalty' that Dwyane Wade so publically reminded us is apparently key to player satisfaction. Loyalty, it must be remembered, can be bought.
We have also seen it in the regular season NBA many times, including very recently. The Bobcats have twice brought in Cory Higgins, son of their President of Basketball Operations Rod Higgins, and kept him for the full 2011/12 season. (They even put him in the rotation for a while. It was out of position at point guard, but, still.) Similarly, Indiana had Ben Hansbrough for the whole of last season, at the same time that they still had big brother Tyler. Ben and Cory, decent though they are, are merely part of the NBA's large fringe, no significantly better than the many other available candidates for the role (despite Mike Brey's protestations that Hansbrough is a right handed Manu Ginobili, he isn't), who surely got what they got on account of who they were related to. It cannot be proven, but it's strongly evidenced.
Chris Smith's signings are just a logical extension of that oft-explored concept. They are, however, a considerably more expensive one. We can only hypothesize as to whether it was absolutely necessary to do this to get J.R. to re-sign twice - if it was, then the cost is, to the effortlessly rich Knicks, mostly meaningless. If it was not, they surely would not have done it. It is the cost of doing business if the business is worth doing.
Nepotism is not new. It is not novel. It is not even wrong, if a team thinks it helps. So perhaps it need not even be embarrassing, despite the quotes that intend to make it so. It is, however, expensive. Especially when it becomes an annual event. At this point, with no obvious need for Chris Smith on the depth chart and a much more pressing need for big man help confronting them, New York should probably double check whether they've done enough.