On the surface, it sounds like a perfect recipe for comedy. Josh Smith, a player who's gained notoriety for being an atrocious shooter and basically the anti-thesis of what modern analytic-driven teams would want in a player, joining a Houston Rockets club run by the league's preeminent egghead in General Manager Daryl Morey. After all, why would the Rockets, a team who eschews the long two on principle, be interested in someone shooting a career-low 39.1 percent and who shoots a long two on 25.8 percent of his attempts? I know, you're already thinking, "Here's another Erler column, bashing a fellow contender's signing, just like he did with Rondo. He's such a homer."
Actually, I think Smith represents good value for the Rockets and there isn't much downside here.
The Rockets are reportedly acquiring Smith for the bi-annual exception, according to Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports, which means his annual salary will be $2 million. When the Pistons signed Smith to a four-year, $54 million deal in the summer of 2013, he was roundly jeered not only because it looked like a gross overpay but also because Smith, a stretch-four, would be asked to shift to the perimeter --away from the paint in other words-- to accommodate Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe. In Houston he'll return to playing his natural position and almost anything he provides will be considered a steal considering what they're paying him. Also, unlike the Rondo move, the Rockets won't have to radically change their offense to fit Smith. In Dallas, a large portion of their attack was the pick-and-roll with Monta Ellis, and that's going to be cut back significantly now with Rondo as the lead ball handler. InHouston Smith won't change the offense's pecking order much. Everything will still go through James Harden, then Dw ight Howard inside and everyone else feeds off those two.
I completely understand why Morey made the move. For one, the Rockets had lost two of the past three and three of the past seven. Among western contenders that qualifies as a "slump." More importantly, while Donatas Montiejunas has filled in admirably for the injured Terrence Jones, his backups Kostas Papanikolau and Joey Dorsey have struggled badly, with net ratings of -2.2 and -3.4, respectively. In fact, if you count just the guys who've played significant minutes, the worst defensive ratings on the Rockets belong to Dorsey (102.5), fellow undersized banger Tarik Black (100.6 and the likeliest candidate to get cut to make room for Smith) and Papanikolau (98.9), with only 79-year-old Jason Terry sliding in their mentions.
Jones is probably a better player overall than Smith at this stage, and he certainly has more upside, but he's out indefinitely with a peroneal nerve contusion. "The peroneal nerve is a branch of the sciatic nerve, which supplies movement to the lower leg, feet and toes," according to the U.S. Library of Medicine. Basically, it's the injury we all feared that Tiago Splitter had. The signing of Smith hints that Morey isn't expecting Jones back anytime soon and he provides insurance even if he does return at some point.
The thing to understand about Smith is he isn't that bad of a shooter. His career field goal percentage is .456 and in his peak years with the Hawks he put up consecutive seasons of .496, .502 and .477 and PERs of 21.0, 19.2, and 21.1. That he never made the All-Star Game in all that time had more to do with Atlanta's allergy to fan and media attention and Smith's checkered off-the-court reputation than any shortcomings in his game. Consider the fact that this fellow made the All-Star Game twice in the early 00's and was thought to be a winner and a star and he shot .394 and .388 in those seasons. Sometimes who you play for colors perceptions.
What's killed Smith hasn't been the long two (he's making 34.7 percent of those, which isn't good, but it's comparable to Tim Duncan) or even his threes (24.3 percent, but he only shoots 1.3 of them a game). It's that he hasn't been able to score in the paint at all. He's converted just 58.6 percent of his dunk/layup chances and a putrid 31.0 percent on shots 3-10 feet. It may not seem like it, but Smith is painfully aware of his limitations --or was made aware by Stan Van Gundy-- and attempted a higher percentage of his field goals (61.9) from inside the paint than at any point in his career. He just had a miserable time getting them to drop.
In Houston, this should prove slightly less problematic. For one, the paint will be less clogged since Howard will be the only other big rather than both Drummond and Monroe at Detroit. For another, everyone sagged inside on the Pistons because nobody can shoot over there. Sagging inside on Houston, with Harden and Trevor Ariza and co., is death. Finally, there will be ample opportunities for Smith to attack the paint with Howard on the bench, since they don't really have another center on the roster.
Smith's all-around skills as a passer, rebounder, defender and shot-blocker should all help the Rockets and he figures to be a factor in transition too. On the whole he makes the Rockets better than they were 24 hours ago.
Of course, to be fair, we need to look at the ways this could blow up in Morey's face as well. As with Rondo in Dallas, this can certainly be looked as another example of a team acquiring a "name" to fix what isn't broken. The Rockets are second in the league in defensive rating (97.5) and they've managed that without Howard for half of their games. They're also 20th in offensive rating. You don't go out and get a Josh Smith if you want your offensive efficiency to improve. Also, he's shooting a career-low .468 from the charity stripe. If Kevin McHale deigns to play him in crunch time, that gives coaches the option of two guys (Howard being the other) to foul intentionally. Then there's Smith's reputation as a coach-killer and the potential chemistry issues that can come up with him in the mix.
Hearing today teams were told Josh Smith would ONLY consider teams offering him a starting spot, essentially reducing choice to HOU vs. MIA— Marc Stein (@ESPNSteinLine) December 24, 2014
McHale isn't going anywhere, he just signed a three-year extension (I predicted in October he'd be the first coach fired this year, LOL me), but no coach likes being told who to play and how and Smith is another sizable ego he's going to have to massage.
Far and away the biggest reason this may not help the Rockets much though is that perhaps Smith is already in severe decline. He's always been a player largely dependent on his athleticism to score and much of his success came in the vertically-challenged Eastern Conference. What happens when he has to face the best of the West night after night, with one quality four after another? Smith posed match-up problems in his Hawks heyday because he forced opponents to guard him with their threes since he could scoot right around the fours. Now though people just sag off him and let him shoot. Maybe he's lost just enough quickness and bounce that he can't finish in the paint anymore. If playing in Houston doesn't rejuvenate his game, then it's over for him, but he needs to realize the competition will be a lot stiffer for him as well, but in terms of the nightly schedule but also internally. The Rockets are not a rebuilding team. They're a contender. Even if McHale agrees to start him, there's no guarantee for minutes if Smith isn't holding up his end of the bargain. Montiejunas and the others will be vying for minutes and Smith needs to prove he's worthy of them.