Joe Smith is Forgotten

When Joe Smith was the number one pick in the 1995 draft, selected by the Golden State Warriors, it was a moment of expected rapture for Smith who was the AP Player of the Year, the Naismith Player of the Year, the UPI Player of the Year, and the ACC Player of the Year. Smith, a 6-10 lanky University of Maryland forward, was a skilled rebounder with a feathery touch and an easy stride. He was soft spoken and coachable. He led his team to two Sweet Sixteen appearances. By every measure, Smith had earned his top of the draft class moment the old fashioned way. For two years, he had been a fixture in the ACC and a trusted inside presence for the Terrapins. The NBA appeared ready for Joe Smith and he was more than ready for the NBA. He was the best college player in the country.

NBA drafts are not to be entered into lightly, nor should they be taken for granted. They are gifts, but gifts have a downside. What you unwrap is not what you always want to receive. And so there are two separate stories on draft night, incredible bliss and agonizing heartbreak, poetry on the one hand and prose on the other. Both appear equal in the moment, until years pass and there is restitution and reconciliation.

It is as simple as this on draft night: the boy is now the man.  For Joe Smith, his glorious moment lasted about thirty minutes. The Warriors, were adding Joe Smith to Latrell Sprewell, Chris Mullins and Tim Hardaway and it felt exceptional if you believe in myths. A half hour later, the ’95 draft switched gears as the unexpected became the real.  And it had nothing to do with Joe Smith.

It had everything to do with the number five pick, a skinny high schooler turned pro who took the stage with a wide smile and anticipation.

Near the very end of the workout, I put him at half-court, I said, ‘Kevin, OK put the ball on the floor as creatively as you can, and then finish to the basket as strong as you can’. He started putting the ball on the floor, and going around his back, between his legs and the speed and the agility that he was doing it with and then the way he finished at the basket…I had vision of everybody watching. And I’m telling you, eyes were wide open and some jaws were dropping.” (John Hammond to Bleacher Report)

Joe Smith never had anyone’s jaws dropping, his talent wasn’t blinding.  And so, in the 1995 NBA Draft Kevin Garnett was the outlier, Joe Smith was the standard. Smith we had seen play at the University of Maryland dozens of times but it was Garnett who was the stranger, the first high schooler since Moses Malone to enter the NBA without college. Garnett was a theory. Joe Smith was a truth. We knew Joe Smith. Garnett was mysterious.

22 years later, the tables are turned. Garnett is who everyone knows. From high school to MVP to champion, it was a beautiful, if not perfect, career that will end in the Hall of Fame. Joe Smith is the mystery now. The number one draft pick in 1995 who Kevin Garnett eclipsed and who was at the center of the worst team punishment in NBA history, that is the Joe Smith without much of a legacy. Did he fall? Or was he exactly who he was supposed to be?

As a term, revolutionary gets tossed around frequently when evaluating talent. But is explosiveness revolutionary? Is speed? The lanky teenager, Garnett set a new standard for acquiring talent: how athletic are they? What is their upside? Garnett came into the league as a skinny 6-11 rebounder. He didn’t have much skill away from the basket. Garnett re-introduced intensity to a mostly, bar Jordan, expressionless game. He was less Muhmmad Ali- float like a butterfly, sting like a bee, and more Mike Tyson-I just want to conquer people and their souls. Garnett was going to do the conquering. But that wasn’t revolutionary either. His poise and skill in a league of men were.

Garnett’s first year, he was modestly successful for a player who had never donned anything but a high school and McDonald’s All American jersey. He averged 10.4 points and 6.3 rebounds. He played in 80 games, 28 minutes, and because the Wolves were not very good there wasn’t any pressure. There wasn’t much expected out of him so everything he gave was interpreted through confirmation bias. High schoolers weren’t expected to thrive in a game of men, they needed patience and time. But number one picks who went to college were supposed to assert their will.

Kareem Abdul-Jabaar was a number one pick, four years of college. Tim Duncan was a number one pick, four years of college. Shaquille O’Neal was a number one pick, three years of college. Magic Johnson was a number one pick, two years of college. Oscar Robertson was a number one pick, three years of college. David Robinson was the number one pick, college and military service. Hakeem Olajuwon was the number one pick, three years of college. Elgin Baylor was the number one pick, three years of college.

The NBA has built its legacy on great college players. So Joe Smith had history on his side. And mammoth sized expectations.

He played every game of the 1995-96 season, averaging 34 minutes, 15.3 points and 8.7 rebounds. His rookie year PER of 17.2 was exceptional. He had two (20) rebound games, one against Charlotte and another against the Jordan-less Bulls. Even though the Warriors had talent- Latrell Sprewell, Chris Mullin, Tim Hardaway- their offense was mediocre and so was their defense. Sprewell was their leading scorer at nearly 19 points a game. They were inconsistent, lacking much of an identity.

Joe Smith finished third in Rookie of the Year voting and was on the All-Rookie first team. The next season, more of the same for Joe Smith. 18 points. Almost 9 rebounds. He wasn’t much of a shot blocker or a rim protector, he wasn’t explosive, nor was he particularly physical. Midway through his third year in the league, the Warriors traded Smith (and Brian Shaw) to Philadelphia for Jim Jackson and Clarence Weatherspoon because Smith wanted to be on the east coast. He turned down an $80 million extension as his rookie contract was coming to a close.

While in the Midwest, after his second year, the number five pick in the 1995 draft was also averaging 17 points and 8 rebounds but Garnett was breathtakingly explosive. He blocked two shots a game his second season. His defensive rating was 105. He ran the court with gazelle like grace. He finished off dunks like he was trying to rip the rim. He was passion and heart for 30 minutes. Garnett was captivating. You could not take your eyes off him. Garnett was 21 years old. He was an All-Star and in the playoffs for the first time.

At the same time Garnett was in the playoffs so was 18 year old rookie Kobe Bryant, with Tracy McGrady waiting to be drafted.

The NBA was changing.

Cheating is a choice. Not a mistake.

Joe Smith was a free agent in 1998, after being traded from the Warriors. It was a full circle moment. The number one pick in the 1995 draft was in demand and he chose to join the number five pick in the 1995 draft, Kevin Garnett. Joe Smith and Kevin Garnett were gong to be teammates.

After three NBA years, Kevin Garnett appeared in two All-Star games to Joe Smith’s none. He had a better offensive rating and defensive rating but Joe Smith had scored 200 more points. Garnett had slightly more rebounds and played almost 300 minutes more. When it came time for Smith to choose a team, pairing up with Garnett in Minnesota seemed particularly luxurious, two young skilled forwards, one explosive and athletic, the other with solid paint skills. But there was a situation.

The Timberwolves didn’t have the money to sign Joe Smith and also sign other key free agents so a back room (illegal) deal was engineered between agents and the Wolves brass. Smith would sign three consecutive one-year minimum deals. After the third minimum deal, the Wolves would give him max money. By then the Wolves would have Smith’s Bird Rights and could bestow upon him a $85 million dollar contract. If everyone stayed quiet, everyone would prosper.

In 1998-99, Smith and Garnett were teammates. It was a shortened year because of the lockout, 50 games. Garnett dropped 20 and 10 and had a mother of God defensive rating of 97. Smith added 13 and 8 as a complimentary player. After Garnett, the pecking order was Stephon Marbury, Terrell Brandon and then Smith. Smith was a strong defender that year but the Wolves lost to the eventual champions, the Spurs, winning one game in the first round series.

It was time for Joe Smith to sign his next minimum deal. But here’s the thing about keeping a secret. Everyone has to stick to the plan and benefit from it. There can’t be a divorce. Divorce is a bitter affair. Sides are drawn, families are ruined.

The agents involved in creating the minimum deal plan had a contentious falling out.  They split up and it got ugly like breakups always do. No one was willing to fall on their sword. There would be wounds and blood and people in the middle and collateral damage. Of that damage, the Wolves and Joe Smith were Exhibit A.

The agents, Eric Fleisher and Andrew Miller, were suddenly ex-partners. Like a married couple who hate each other, they fought over the kids.

Kevin Garnett and Joe Smith kept Andrew Miller as their agent. Eric Fleisher sued. In discovery, documents detailing the illegal arrangement were unearthed and it dropped into the NBA’s lap like a bunch of pipe bombs. David Stern seethed, conducted an internal investigation of his own, and then the lawyer Stern went rogue.

As punishment, Stern voided year three of the minimum deal contract.  He voided the previous two years as well so the Wolves wouldn’t have Smith’s Bird Rights. The Wolves lost first round picks for the next five years and were fined $3.5 million dollars. The Wolves owner, Glen Taylor, was suspended for a year and Kevin McHale who was VP of Basketball Operations took a leave of absence. The McHale excuse was laughable. The VP said, “I have not looked at a contract in four or five years.” The Wolves went to the this is how business in the NBA is done card.

No one is denying specious backroom dealings take place in big business but my brother taught me if you are going to get caught cheating make sure the prize was worth it. Joe Smith wasn’t worth it, not to punish your franchise. He was a role player. He was replaceable. He was ordinary.

Smith left Minnesota, signed a one year deal with the Pistons, then returned to Minnestoa on a $36 million dollar contract. He was traded after two years to Milwaukee. He was then traded to the Nuggets where he played 11 games. The Nuggets used him to get Allen Iverson. Then it was the merry-go-round. The Bulls. The Cavaliers. The Thunder. The Cavaliers again. Then the Hawks and Lakers. They filled out the Joe Smith number one pick who wasn’t all that bio.

What is a NBA bust?

Is it an inability to land a second contract if you were at the top of the draft? There have been many of those in recent memory.

Thomas Robinson played 313 games, drafted 5th. Jan Vesely played 162 games, drafted 6th. Hasheem Thabeet played 224 games, drafted second. Jonny Flynn played 163 games, drafted 6th. Greg Oden played 105 games, drafted first. Adam Morrison played 161 games, drafted 3rd and has a ring. Nikoloz Tskitishvili played 172 games, drafted 5th. Anthony Bennett played 151 games, drafted 1st.

But that isn’t Joe Smith. Joe Smith played in 1,030 games. He played in the Michael Jordan era and the Kobe Bryant era and the LeBron James era; he even played with Kobe and LeBron. He played in the Steph Curry era and the Kevin Durant era.

His numbers are his numbers, 10.9 points, 6.4 rebounds, 107 offensive rating, 106 defensive rating, PER 15.4. He was never an All-Star. He was never All-NBA. He played a full season once, his rookie year. He never had a 20 point season, nor did he consistently pull in 10 rebounds. He was traded to 6 teams: Sixers, Bucks, Nuggets, Sixers, Thunder, Lakers. It would have been a 7th team but Tyson Chandler failed a physical rescinding a trade from the Thunder to New Orleans. Joe Smith played for 12 franchises. He played with Tim Hardaway Jr., Chris Mullin, Allen Iverson, Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Garnett, LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol.

For all, there is karma.  In the playoffs of 2008, Joe Smith played against Kevin Garnett. Both had been through multiple NBA dog years and trades but Garnett was the superstar while Joe Smith didn’t stay in one place long enough to know things.  In games 3, 4 and 6, Smith logged over 20 minutes.

His best game in the series by far was game 3. He had 17 points and 6 rebounds. He missed one shot of the eight he took. It was the Warriors Joe Smith on display, a peek into who he used to be and what his potential was and why Joe Smith was the number one pick in the NBA draft of 1995. The Cavs killed the Celtics that night.

Garnett also had 17 points and added 9 rebounds. But Garnett had a defensive rating of 134 and Joe Smith’s was 103. It was the smallest of small sample sizes and in the grand scheme of things it didn’t really matter except it validated the basic premise of Joe Smith who was now coming off the bench. He was a NBA player.

Naturally, the Celtics prevailed in game 7 in the Garden. Joe Smith wasn’t a factor, just 6 points and 6 rebounds. As the seconds ticked off the clock, Joe Smith was on the court. An offensive rebound that didn’t mean anything. A bad pass stolen by Eddie House to end the game. The steal was a metaphor. His career would slowly dissolve as quickly as Eddie House dribbled out the clock and celebrated.

Joe Smith went on. Cleveland. Oklahoma City. New Jersey. Los Angeles. The End. There was no grand goodbye or farewell, just a footnote about once upon a time. He were here. He was a number one pick who played for many teams. It wasn’t a tragedy, his career. It wasn’t a romance, his career. He didn’t waste his talent.

It wasn’t as if Joe Smith was phenomenal like Deron Williams or Derrick Rose and then injuries derailed everything. Joe Smith was Joe Smith. In the begining. In the middle. At the end. He was the number one pick everyone wanted more from. He was supposed to be the dream, drafted as he was ahead of Kevin Garnett. Always he was forced to justify his draft slot, year after year it haunted him. He was drafted before Kevin Garnett, Jerry Stackhouse, Rasheed Wallace. And like a magician doing the impossible, Joe Smith made himself invisible.

The truth falls in the middle. Joe Smith was not a cautionary tale as much as he was the last of a dying breed.  He was a symbol of evolution. At every position, breathtaking athletes now dominated the league. They were the standard. Smith was just an ordinary athlete. And so, he was an ordinary NBA player who had an average and often boring career.  It’s what the NBA promises for most of its citizens, regardless of where they were drafted. You will not be great. You will not set records. You will not be adored. You will be part of history. You will do your service. It will end one day.

It will end one day when no one is paying attention.