Every July for the past four years, I’ve poured one out for the Pistons in honor of Josh Smith. In the summer of 2013, Smith signed a four-year, $54 million contract; less than a year and a half later, he was waived using the stretch provision in one of the earliest moves of the Stan Van Gundy era in the front office. With over $26 million left on his contract, the Pistons were essentially signing up to pay him $5.3 million for the next five years. Smith’s annual dead-cap value was worth more than the mid-level exception at the time. When Smith is finally cut off in 2020, kids who were middle-schoolers when he was first waived will be eligible the draft. Strategic.
Only a handful of teams entered the summer with money to spend; Detroit wasn’t one of them. (Ironically, Smith outlasted SVG on the Pistons’ payroll.) Once the initial free agency boom was over, front offices were scraping for cap space. Most dead-cap situations aren’t as egregious as Smith’s, but it’s money that could certainly be used elsewhere.
When players retire, are waived, or are bought out, the money left on their contracts remain on a team’s cap sheet even though the actual player is no longer on the roster; the money left over is referred to as “dead.” Was it worth the payment years later? There are 32 players on the 2018-19 dead-cap list (11 of whom are active). To determine whether there was anything among them more worthwhile than a potential Big 3 squad, Danny Chau, Justin Verrier, and I each constructed starting fives via snake draft. (No cap limit—that would be cruel.) Here’s the pool of talent we selected from:
The Dead Cap Talent Pool
|Jamal Crawford (ATL)||Josh Smith (DET)||Dwight Howard (BKN)|
|Deron Williams (BKN)||Troy Williams (HOU)||Al Jefferson (IND)|
|Demetrius Jackson (BOS)||Chris Bosh (MIA)||A.J. Hammons (MIA)|
|Monta Ellis (IND)||Shabazz Muhammad (MIN)||Cole Aldrich (MIN)|
|Carlos Delfino (LAC)||Jason Thompson (GSW)||Miroslav Raduljica (LAC)|
|Jamaal Franklin (MEM)||Rade Zagorac (MEM)||Spencer Hawes (MIL)|
|Kevin Martin (MIN)||Larry Sanders (MIL)||Anderson Varejao (POR)|
|C.J. Watson (ORL)||Mirza Teletovic (MIL)||Festus Ezeli (POR)|
|Shelvin Mack (ORL)||Andrew Nicholson (POR)||Tim Duncan (SAS)|
|Matt Barnes (SAC)||Georgios Papagiannis (SAC)|
|Caron Butler (SAC)||Justin Hamilton (TOR)|
|Martell Webster (WAS)|
Dwight Howard (pick no. 1)
Monta Ellis (6)
Shabazz Muhammad (7)
Mirza Teletovic (12)
Deron Williams (13)
Verrier: This was a one-player draft, much as it was in 2004, when Howard was selected first overall. Sure, Howard is 32 and has become something of a locker-room fungus in the twilight of his career. But he just averaged a double-double while playing in all but one game last season. More to the point, he is the only NBA starter in the field. I will always bet on talent. I am the Pat Riley of this shit.
The rest of my roster … just kind of happened. Ellis took last season off, presumably because his score-first ways don’t translate well to a reduced role, and he would almost certainly clash with Dwight and D-Will over touches; then again, my guy gets buckets. Shabazz is at least the chalk outline of a wing defender who can hopefully, maybe hit an open jumper on Howard kickouts better than he did throughout his disappointing NBA career. And pairing former Nets teammates Williams and Teletovic with Howard at least gives us a glimpse at the alternate-reality Brooklyn team that was foiled by the Magic’s convincing candy selection years ago.
Tim Duncan (2)
Shelvin Mack (5)
Matt Barnes (8)
Al Jefferson (11)
Kevin Martin (14)
O’Shaughnessy: You won’t be able to convince me that Duncan’s presence wouldn’t be more impactful than that of every active player on this list not named Dwight Howard. True, this is a squad that will need hours of pre-game, in-game, and postgame stretching, but with six championships among them and a couple solid locker-room-culture guys—I threw Big Al in just to balance out Barnes—winning is practically instinctual. By the end of his career, Barnes was shooting a salvageable 33 percent from 3. Mack shot 35, just under league average, and next to K-Mart’s goofy release (you know you miss it, too), there’s more deep shooting on this squad than one would expect from a bunch of retired dudes. Barnes and Mack will have to carry the defense, which I envision will probably have the collective effectiveness of Nikola Jokic getting back in transition.
Troy Williams (3)
Jamal Crawford (4)
Demetrius Jackson (9)
Rade Zagorac (10)
A.J. Hammons (15)
Chau: Firstly, I want to say that I have no idea what Justin and Haley are doing. But before I get into that, I’d like to tell a story. Three years ago, Grantland, my former employer, assembled a team for The Basketball Tournament. We liked our odds; our squad boasted the likes of former NBA players Mike Bibby, Brian Scalabrine, and Jason Williams, along with then-fringe NBA players Reggie Williams and Royal Ivey. We lost in the second game. Why? Because old (and retired) players have shit to do other than basketball. Most of our all-star lot gave excuses; White Chocolate straight-up went AWOL. I own Jason Williams’s Team Grantland game uniform, never worn.
This is why my dead-cap battalion would win. Both of my rivals have two players apiece who are not active professional athletes and have not been for at least a year. Haley’s team has an average age of 35. Justin’s average age is 31, which is perhaps an ideal number, except one of his players is now an MMA podcaster, and another had pulmonary emboli in both of his lungs, which is threatening his career. We’re not tossing these players’ career résumés down at center court, we’re trying to build an actual basketball-playing starting five. My team’s average age is 26; it’s full of athletes, shooters, and a big ol’ boy down low in A.J. Hammons. Crawford might be the only name you recognize, but the majority of my players are still young and striving.
Yes, my team probably sucks, but at the very least, I know my players would be there for the game.