Two years ago, the Detroit Pistons signed free agent forward Josh Smith. We all know about Smith. He is an Atlanta kid who played nine seasons for the Hawks. It didn’t take him long to establish a reputation as a selfish player who preferred to sling wild jump shots instead of becoming the next Karl Malone.
This season, the Pistons hired a new head coach, Stan Van Gundy. Smith didn’t jive with what Van Gundy likes to do as a coach. So the Pistons released Smith, even though there were two-and-a-half seasons remaining on his four-year, $54 million contract.
But a remarkable thing has happened. The Pistons, who were 5-23 before Smith was released, have gone 7-1 since. And Smith’s new team, the Houston Rockets, is 5-4 since signing the forward. They started the season 20-7 before they allowed Smith to join his former AAU teammate in Atlanta, Dwight Howard.
Smith probably isn’t the only reason the Pistons have gotten on track, or the only reason the Rockets have struggled. But it is telling that a player like Smith has obviously had an impact on two teams. The Pistons are obviously playing better without him.
It’s not easy for any team, in any sport, to simply eat a salary like that. This brings me to the Braves, who still have B.J. Upton on the roster for the upcoming season.
Upton has three years and $46.35 million left on his deal. This is not the NFL, so the Braves just can’t release him and forget about the money. They are stuck with him, and after all winter trying to give him away for anything, it’s obviously they can’t and that he’ll likely be on the opening day roster in April.
Upton has hit .198 in his two seasons with the Braves. He’s making bad free agent acquisitions like Bruce Sutter and Derek Lowe seem not so bad. Upton has simply been horrendous. He has not only not hit a lick, but he has struggled in center field and sometimes does not hustle.
Braves new head honcho John Hart has said this winter that a player under an expensive contract is not guaranteed a starting role. That was a hint to Upton that he better hit or he’s going to be the most expensive player on the Atlanta bench since, well, Dan Uggla.
The Braves released Uggla last season with a year-and-a-half left on his contract. They’ll eat the $13.2 million this season while Uggla tries to hook on with the Washington Nationals in spring training. But after giving Uggla every chance possible, the Braves just couldn’t “afford” to keep Uggla around anymore.
How long will they give Upton this season? The Braves are trying to fix a team that was badly broken by former general manager Frank Wren, and one of the main reasons he’s gone now is the Upton signing. But with a lot of new players expected on the roster, will the Braves want Upton’s attitude around if he still struggles?
There is a theory that perhaps having Justin Upton, B.J.’s brother, now away from the Braves will allow B.J. to get on track. It’s not a crazy thought. When looking at what was different between B.J.’s time with the Tampa Bay Rays, when he was at least a respectable player, and when he’s been with the Braves, one thing that stands out is that he was playing with his brother the past two years in Atlanta.
Maybe it’s foolish to believe, but maybe, just maybe, B.J. was never comfortable playing with his more-talented brother in the same outfield. Will having Justin now in San Diego allow B.J. to rebound?
It might be a stretch, but why else would B.J. hit .255 in eight years with the Rays and 57 points lower in Atlanta? Why else Upton average 23 home runs in his final three seasons in Tampa Bay and then average 10.5 in his two seasons in Atlanta?
Maybe the Braves will find out if having Justin gone will help B.J. But if he struggles again, perhaps they’ll see what happened with the Pistons and take note. Maybe eating a large contract and telling a player to go away will be painful financially, but will in the long run make your team better.
Listen to “The Bill Shanks Show” from 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WPLA Fox Sports 1670 AM in Macon and online at www.foxsports1670.com. Follow Bill at www.twitter.com/BillShanks and email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.