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Is Josh Smith Best Man To Lift Rockets

By Tamberlyn Richardson
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Is Josh Smith the best man for the Rockets?

I guess we’ll find out soon enough, in fact it’s likely we’ll get our first look this evening when the Rockets take on their inter-division rivals Memphis who currently sit a half game ahead of them in the Southwest Division.

In the not so well guarded secret, Smith who was released Monday from the Detroit Pistons signed with Houston today, joining childhood friend and former Atlantic Celtics, AAU teammate Dwight Howard.

Though several teams vied to add the 6’9″ power forward, a few franchises appeared to have the inside track. Howard is one of two NBA athletes who have a strong relationship with Smith going back to their high school days in Atlanta. Smith also played with Rajon Rondo at Oak Hill Academy, where he transferred in his senior year.

With the on-going battle between Houston General Manager Daryl Morey and Dallas Maverick owner Mark Cuban to one-up each other it was thought Rondo, who signed with Dallas last week might be able to persuade Smith to join the Mavs.  It soon became clear however that Dallas wasn’t an option as a key caveat for Smith was a guaranteed starting position. With franchise star Dirk Nowitzki firmly entrenched at power forward that meant Dallas wouldn’t make Smith’s shortlist.

Look who is sitting in the chair to the left of Smith.

While teams fell off Smith’s short list Houston provided the best option as they met his list of needs:

  • A starting position
  • Additional funds in the neighborhood of $2.077 believed to be available from the bi-annual player exception
  • His friendship with Dwight Howard and the memories of the success they experienced on the AAU Atlanta Celtics in high school
  • A return to his preferred power forward role
  • A team positioned to make the playoffs as a high seed
  • A system he should fit in much better than Detroit and arguably better than any of the other teams vying for his services
  • Houston already has a relationship with Smith having been a key player in the sweepstakes to land him in the summer of 2013

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With Smith having formalized his decision we can now begin the process of dissecting and analyzing how his addition will impact the Rockets moving forward.

To that end, let’s break it down:

Smith’s best years were at Power Forward:

Could Smith’s struggles in Detroit be simplified to him playing out of position at the small forward or with a young team? Looking at Smith’s best years he excelled in Atlanta as a power forward with a team not dissimilar to the 2014-15 Rockets.

Drafted by Atlanta he played 9-seasons there and went to the playoffs 6-straight years from 2007-8 through to 2012-13. During his time in Atlanta the core group featured Joe Johnson, Al Horford, Marvin Williams, Jamal Crawford with bigs Jason Collins and Zaza Pachulia.

Examining those Hawks the team featured a solid front court of rim protection and size on the wings with capable three-point shooters who spread the floor. This version of the Hawks were one of the better defensive units in the league who had size, quickness and spread the floor with the number of shooters they could put on the court at any given time.

During his tenure as a Hawk, Smith was a stat machine often boasting double-doubles and filling intangible categories like steals and blocks. When he became a free agent it was those factors which made him a coveted asset.

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His best season as a Hawk was 2011-12 when his stat line was: 18.8-points, 9.6-rebounds (2.1-offensive rebounds), 3.9 assists, 1.4-steals and 1.7-blocks and he shot 45.8% from the field.

Looking at his numbers as a Piston his stats are well below his best season as a Hawk: 13.1-points, 7.2-rebounds, 4.7-assists, 1.3-steals and 1.7-blocks with a 39.1% field goal average and a career worst 24.3% shooting average from three.

Reasons why Smith’s numbers may have decreased:

Examining the drop off in Smith’s Detroit numbers some factors should be considered:

1) Detroit has been playing him at the Small Forward position which is not his preferred spot and with the size of Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe it surely played a role in the rebounds and blocks available to him

2) The Pistons don’t space the floor well which makes them easier to defend thus not allowing good ball movement. They rank near the bottom of the league in 3-point percent (33%) and connect on only 7.7 shots per game. Conversely the Rockets rank first in attempts (34.2) and makes per game (11.7).

3) The Pistons are an extremely young team who aren’t winning which is an environment that provided little for Smith to excel in as Stan Van Gundy looked to optimize time and plays for Drummond and Monroe

Smith’s field goal shooting aside, a closer look at Smith’s contribution to the Pistons may be somewhat deceiving. When I looked at his stats from an individual perspective there are key areas in which he excels:

  • His 4.7 assists represent 23% of the team total
  • His 1.7 blocks provide 37% of team’s total blocks
  • He provided 18.5% of the Piston’s steals
  • He garnered 13.8% of the teams’ points

I’d guess Josh Smith’s 3-point shots will be limited to the corners (like Terrence Jones.) The only “green” for Josh: pic.twitter.com/m0hiL10pkL

— Tas Melas (@TasMelas) December 24, 2014

The 2014-15 Rockets closer semblance to Hawk team Smith excelled with:

Looking back at the years in which Smith was a valuable asset he played with a team not dissimilar to the Rockets, specifically Joe Johnson provided size on the wings and Jamal Crawford, Marvin Williams and  Johnson in concert with Smith allowed the Hawks to run, space the floor well and attack the rim with multiple options.

In essence the Rockets are a step-up from those Hawks as arguably Dwight Howard and James Harden are the best at their positions. Trevor Ariza and Patrick Beverley provide strong defense and Ariza specifically allows for speed on the wings and valuable 3-point shooting.

The addition of Smith to this unit will permit even better spacing as he can man the paint with Howard to garner low-post scoring while Harden and Ariza can hit from the perimeter or attack the paint. It makes the Rockets much more difficult to defend assuming Smith buys into his role of staying in or near the paint.

I think the area he’ll be a true asset is his assists. While most of his career numbers have fallen the one area that has improved is his passing and specifically his assists. We won’t expect him to take on the role of a point forward, but this talent will surely help the team with their ability to increase ball movement and scoring options particularly for Howard and Harden.

Rockets’ bench should take a leap:

In fairness while the Rockets have languished near the bottom in all stat categories much of their failure can be attributed to the multitude of injuries the team has been nursing for most of the season. They rank last in points (21.6) assists (5.2), free throws made/attempted (2.8/4.6), efficiency (22.8) and are a minus -15.3 on the court. Further, they rank  29th in rebounds (11.6).

Those numbers should get a real shot in the arm with the addition of Smith to the starting line-up coupled with recent additions Corey Brewer and Alexey Shved to the reserves. More importantly when Terrence Jones returns from injury the ability to pair him with improving third-year power forward Donatas Motiejunas as well as  Joey Dorsey may make the Rockets front court  the deepest in the Association.

Immediate Insight:

As seen via the Rockets’ twitter account Smith was with the team for morning shoot around today and working with Kevin McHale to get familiar with team concepts. They’ll likely keep things relatively simple for Smith as they enter tonight’s much anticipated inter division contest. Memphis currently sit a half game ahead of Houston and third in the Western Conference, but are on a 3-game losing streak.

A win tonight would provide instant gratification regarding the moves General Manager Daryl Morey has made over the past week, more importantly it move the Rockets ahead of Memphis to take over the division lead and 3rd place in the West. Conversely a loss won’t signify much given Smith will be on the court with less than a day of being with his new team.

From a Team Perspective:

The big question isn’t necessarily what Smith can do to make the product on the court better, rather what his presence will do to a team who appears to have a very strong chemistry. Will his association with former friend Howard be enough to harness his oft cited selfish disposition. If we believe what he’s saying then he plans on providing all the things the Rockets want him for which is rim protection, blocks, rebounding and inside scoring.

Looking back, Smith has never played on a team with this many stars and the ones he did play on featured players like Joe Johnson who aren’t known as demonstrative or talkative leaders. Harden for his part is a true All-Star and has taken full ownership of the team. Therefore Harden’s number one goal will be to ensure players like Motiejunas and Jones continue to produce and buy into the team first concept.

Nov 26, 2014; Auburn Hills, MI, USA; Detroit Pistons forward Josh Smith (6) during the fourth quarter against the Los Angeles Clippers at The Palace of Auburn Hills. Los Angeles won 104-98. Mandatory Credit: Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

Smith holds the power to change his future:

Following his release from Detroit this week Smith certainly has enough ammunition to want to prove Stan Van Gundy made the wrong decision. Athletes aren’t immune to embarrassment, so one would have to believe being waived with over $26-million dollars and 2-years plus 54-regular season games remaining in his 4-year contract is not only unprecedented, it’s beyond humbling.

Potentially having so much talent surrounding him and being in a winning atmosphere may elicit the best side of Josh Smith who’ll hopefully relish the opportunity to regain his on court prowess and improve his image. Ultimately, we know Smith will be looking to show Stan Van Gundy and the Pistons they made a very big mistake.

Therefore as Smith takes to the court this evening with this goal in mind, we as Rocket fans will wish him the best in that endeavor as ultimately we and his team will be the benefactors if he indeed accomplishes those goals.  Here’s hoping, he and the Rockets garner immediate gratification.

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