NEW YORK — Josh Smith would rather be viewed as a possible difference-maker for a franchise that has just one playoff series victory since 1997. He can’t have it that easy though, not after the bizarre happenstance in Detroit following his stunning departure last month.
Smith’s desire to have his value measured only through the success or failure of the Houston Rockets has instead been complicated by the unprecedented turnaround of his former team, which has taken addition by subtraction to extreme, inflated levels.
The Pistons lost 19 of their first 22 games this season, and were 5-23 when team president and Coach Stan Van Gundy gave Smith the more than $30 million left on his contract to just go away. Detroit has gone 9-1 in Smith’s absence, are only two games out of the eighth spot in the Eastern Conference, and turned Smith into either a sympathetic figure or the source of the dysfunction, depending on your vantage point. Waive the Josh Smith in your life has now become a running gag and a rallying cry for those looking to rid impediments to their success. The Pistons initially took advantage of a weaker schedule but have since reeled off credible wins over San Antonio, Dallas and Toronto with the only loss coming against the East-leading Atlanta Hawks.
“I’m excited for them,” Smith said, recently, when asked about the Pistons’ success without him. “We could’ve turned it around, I’m kind of thinking that. I text those guys every day and let them know – the ones I was really close to – of how proud I am of them and to keep up the good work.”
Smith was almost doomed to fail in Detroit, where a young front line of Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe forced him to play small forward and encouraged him to backslide into some poor habits and even poorer shot choices. If he’s hurt or disturbed that the breakup has placed him in yet another awkward position, Smith won’t let on. He claims that Detroit’s Smith-free revival – and the subsequent snide remarks – doesn’t affect him.
“Well, I really don’t pay attention. I watch ‘Family Guy.’ I watch ‘Maury Povich.’ That’s one of my favorite shows,” Smith said with a laugh. “I don’t really put my ears and eyes to negative publicity. I know that every player is critiqued in this league, especially by ones that don’t know the individual players, so I really can’t get mad. I mean, it’s something to talk about. If they had nothing to talk about on ESPN and other shows, no one would watch.”
Smith’s predicament has only been exacerbated because the other team he left behind in 2013 – his hometown Hawks — are also soaring without him while his replacement, Paul Millsap, has already claimed the all-star status in Atlanta that Smith sought when he left for Detroit.
The Rockets can only be concerned with the end game as it relates to Smith. No hot streak in January will matter for a team that signed the 6-foot-9 forward as a way to strengthen its roster without raiding its core. Houston has won three in a row and gone 7-4 overall since adding Smith, whose experience, athleticism and versatility provide a dynamic that was missing with the team.
“He’s been great. I’ve really enjoyed him. He’s got a high basketball IQ. He’s done everything I’ve asked him to do,” Rockets Coach Kevin McHale said. “He’s been great for us. I only judge people by my experiences with them and he’s been fantastic.”
Smith said he viewed getting waived as “a blessing” because he was given the chance to receive every dime owed him and to get a first-class upgrade to a contending team. He understood he wasn’t a part of the long-term plans and that Van Gundy wanted to evaluate other players such as Kyle Singler and Jonas Jerebko once the season had gone south.
“I have no hard feelings,” Smith said. “I think I was signed under Joe Dumars and then coming into a new group, a new situation, I knew [Van Gundy] probably wanted his guys in there and it was a lot of young guys that needed to be groomed. They was more so in a rebuilding phase and he didn’t want to string me along for the process because he’s understanding that this is my 11th year and, you know, I should have an opportunity to play for something.”
Houston was an easy choice for Smith since he had been friends with Dwight Howard – the best man at his wedding – since preschool, played a few pro-am games in Los Angeles with James Harden and had known Trevor Ariza since the two often worked out against each other leading up to the 2004 NBA draft. Howard didn’t want to pressure Smith into coming but made sure his former AAU teammate felt wanted.
“I told him, if he wants an opportunity to win, I think this would be the best place for him,” Howard said. “With the West being extremely tough, having a guy that can stretch the floor but also be physical on the inside, we needed. It’s good to have him out there on our team, instead of me playing against him.”
In a recent 97-82 win over Utah, Smith showcased his tantalizing talents when he made a spinning, no-look reverse bounce pass to Donatas Motiejunas, slapped a layup attempt by Jazz forward Elijah Millsap — which led to an uncontested dunk for Howard — and later threw down a fast break slam over 7-2 big man Rudy Gobert. Smith hasn’t been able to resist taking those errant three-pointers but he is converting two-pointers at a better rate than he was in Detroit (47.4 percent compared to 40.7).
The Rockets are 6-1 with Smith coming off the bench, a move that Smith, confused and uncomfortable about his responsibilities within McHale’s offense, suggested after the team suffered a 29-point loss in New Orleans.
“Our offense requires and demands, which everybody respects on the team, to get the ball to James and Dwight and it was kind of hard to find that in-between of where I needed to be at,” Smith said. “I can visualize things that I probably couldn’t see at the beginning of games and it’s helping me to be more effective with this team. Also, in those crunch situations, finish out the games with those guys.”
Harden, a former sixth man of the year who is now a front-runner for the league’s most valuable player award, spoke with Smith about the effect he could have as a reserve. “Just change the game, be a game changer,” Harden said he told Smith. “The last couple of games he’s done that.”
After gaining a better understanding of his limitations with the Pistons, Smith has placed winning above any other priorities. What happened in Detroit with him is over, what’s happening now is out of his control, so Smith only has to prove himself to the team that believes his presence will be beneficial in the long run.
“Sacrifice for whatever it takes in order for us to get wins,” Smith said. “I haven’t really stopped smiling since the moment I had an opportunity to be right back in free agency and this is the team I feel most comfortable on. That we have a great group of guys in this locker room and I feel great about our opportunities looking forward.”
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