Josh Smith: A Flawed but Useful Veteran

Josh Smith signed a NBA contract with his fourth team over the summer, agreeing to a one-year deal after spending last year with Detroit and Houston. It’s a bit jarring to see him as a nomad since his career began with Atlanta and he spent nine seasons there. Then again, this is a guy who has earned as much as $13.5 million in a single year and is now making the veteran’s minimum. Smith has played small forward at times and historically isn’t afraid to shoot from long range. Given the Clippers’ glut at that position, he is likely to play more at power forward. Rather than starting, Smith should provide depth in a frontcourt that features Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan.

Smith has his shortcomings, but I expect him to meet expectations when deployed in a limited capacity.

Doc Rivers was able to land Smith at a bargain rate, and there are some reasons for that. Last season, Detroit was 5-23 with Smith in the lineup but played .500 ball without him. The problem was mostly his inefficiency on offense rather than any defensive issues. While in Detroit, he was a high volume three-point shooter but hit just 26% of them. He converted 41% of field goals and hit a dreadful 51% of free throws. Even though his shots weren’t falling, he launched 16 per contest in 2013-14 and an average of 14 the following season with the Pistons. It’s not all that surprising that Stan Van Gundy released Smith in December, which resulted in his signing by the Rockets.

Going to Houston meant a smaller role for Smith, but he made the most of it. Smith’s three-point percentage rose to 33%, while his 44% from the field was the best since he played for the Hawks. Smith’s new niche forced him to make better, quicker decisions in the interest of the team. Even while playing only 26 minutes, he still averaged about a block and a steal per contest to go with 2.6 assists.

The perimeter shooting won’t make anyone forget Kyle Korver, but it was a positive sign for someone who will continue to play a bench role. He also developed some chemistry feeding the ball to Dwight Howard for easy baskets. This season Smith may see some time alongside Griffin, who has been known to dunk a lob or two. One factor that didn’t approve appreciably was his stroke from the foul line, which is puzzling because he hovered around 70% for years early in his career.

After the season, the Rockets wanted him to stay and even the Sacramento Kings courted him. In the end, Smith took less money to head to Los Angeles. One reason for the interest was Smith’s strong defensive season, especially on shots near the basket. From ten feet or less, opposing players shot 8.6% worse than average last year. Within six feet, that figure climbed to 9.4%. Smith didn’t excel at perimeter defense, but that was more than offset by his strong interior presence. Smith also protected the rim in 2013-14, but at a more modest 5.2% clip for shots six feet or fewer from the hoop. All in all he’s unlikely to hurt the Clippers while guarding opponents, especially if his quarry is a traditional power forward or center.

During his first two regular season games, Smith has been even less involved in the offense than anticipated. In the two games combined, he scored just six points and made six turnovers. However, he has proven himself an asset on the other end of the floor. Smith blocked five shots in the season opener at Sacramento, playing when DeAndre Jordan needed a rest. In the home opener against Dallas, Smith swatted another two shots and pulled down six rebounds. Rivers should love that kind of defensive tenacity, particularly against big scorers like DeMarcus Cousins.

Josh Smith was overexposed as a starter for the Pistons but still has the chance to be a useful role player or spot starter in case of injury. He still has some athleticism left and proved he could adapt during his stint in Texas. It also helps that Smith gives opposing players something to think about when they are releasing a shot. Of course, it doesn’t bode well for the Clippers’ title hopes if they count on him for more than reasonable defense and the occasional offensive contribution.