"He's the first true point guard I've played with."
Those words, taken more as an attack on Michael Carter-Williams by Nerlens Noel than anything else, pointed out the value that Ish Smith had for the Sixers and Noel's improved play in the last third of the 2014-15 season. And yet, because of his strong play, he might been too good to retain - not because the Sixers want to "maximize losses" but because he may have priced himself out of a reasonable contract with the team going forward.
Smith showed he was an NBA rotation player, a point guard who can capably run a pick-and-roll with a rim-running big and get into the teeth of the defense despite lacking a jump shot. Brett Brown loves Smith, and he believes that with a summer of training and dedicated shooting work that Ish Smith can develop much more as a shooter and all-around guard.
But the problem with Ish Smith, and the same problem that you'll find with Thomas Robinson and others, is that he's a free agent that can command some non-league minimum sum of money. Smith's final two months of the season, where he averaged 12 points and six assists per game in only 27 minutes, surely raised some eyebrows, enough so that he should receive significant free agent interest.
In a league where half of the teams will have max cap room this summer ahead of a cap spike, everyone that remains after the max-contract players reach their destinations will have an inflated short-term value. That includes Smith, who will be an unrestricted free agent, meaning the Sixers have no right to match any offer or control his market.
The Sixers have more cap room than the oceans have water. But the Sixers are not in the business of overpaying people for marginal improvement on a non-contender that does not "move the needle." Nor should they be. Ask K.J. McDaniels about this.
Isaiah Canaan might not be as good as Ish Smith (I'd argue they're not very close when comparing how they perform real point guard tasks). Paying Smith a few million dollars per season on a multi-year deal compared to Isaiah Canaan on a minimum salary deal without a full guarantee doesn't seem like a big difference for the Sixers in their current state.
But it can be. A player with millions in guarantees is much harder to move as part of a bigger deal and cannot be waived without counting against the team's cap number. The minimum salary exception allows a team to trade a player who makes the league minimum in any deal. Remember the Casper Ware and Brandon Davies trades? They were able to trade a player who would otherwise be waived to get draft picks. Signing Smith to a bigger offer would remove that potential.
And good teams need solid backup point guards. Maybe Ish is the latest in a line of undersized backup point guards in Chicago, or wherever Tom Thibodeau coaches? Maybe the Raptors see the need for a dribble penetration guy behind Kyle Lowry? Maybe Portland finally tires of Steve Blake? There should be plenty of teams searching for a capable backup point guard this summer. Smith should attract attention from all those teams.
Based on this, a guaranteed contract seems like a baseline offer to Smith. And if you sign Smith for more than the NBA's minimum salary, on a guaranteed contract, you might as well be wedded to him. For a 26-year-old backup point guard, it's hard to see the upside. I'd love to swipe right, but the price of a long-term relationship sounds too steep for my tastes. If the Sixers can sign him to a deal with only one (or zero) years guaranteed, I'd like to explore the relationship further.