Back in December, Josh Smith would have been one of the last players anyone thought would make an impact in the 2015 NBA Playoffs.
Smith was averaging 13.1 points (his lowest mark since 2006) and shooting a career-low 39.1 percent from the field before the Detroit Pistons cut him loose on Dec. 22.
The Pistons were 5-23 at that time, and per Basketball-Reference, were 13.1 points per 100 possessions better with Smith off the floor. It didn’t exactly come as a surprise when the Pistons won seven straight and 11 of their next 13 games with Smith off the team.
While the move to cut Smith with so much left on his contract was unconventional, it was understandable because the 10-year vet was looking out of shape, sluggish, disoriented, confused and just flat out bad. A trade may have been more preferable, but nothing came to fruition.
At his worst, Smith is a shot-chucking albatross. The only thing that version of Smith loves more than having the ball in his hands is taking aimless jumpers. It’s never a good sign when opposing stadiums cheer every time you shoot it and your home crowd sighs as the ball leaves your fingers. Smith is a career 28.5 percent three-pointer shooter, making Detroit’s decision to put him at small forward even more head-scratching.
It feels like ages ago, but J-Smoove actually used to be a boss. The dude swatted at least 2.6 shots per game from 2005-2008, and anything in his way on his path to the basket got crushed. With how bad Smith has been the last few years, you forget he’s only 29.
It’s amazing what a change of scenery can do for a player. Since joining the Houston Rockets, we’ve seen more of the J-Smoove we know and love, and less of the albatross that nearly single-handedly derailed the Pistons.
Smith averaged 12.0 points, 6.0 rebounds and 2.6 assists in 25.5 minutes per game in 55 games for Houston. Smith amazingly made 63 threes while shooting 33.0 percent, which actually made him a somewhat useful stretch 4. He has become less of a liability, and perhaps most importantly, he meshes with the team culture. Never has that been more evident than in the playoffs against the Dallas Mavericks.
The Rockets have a 3-1 series lead, and a lot of that has to do with Smith. He’s averaging 16.8 points, 6.0 rebounds and 4.3 assists while shooting 50 percent from the field and an incredible 41.2 percent from downtown. To put that in perspective, Smith is shooting 7-17 from three in four playoff games when he shot 9-37 from three with the Pistons in 28 games during the regular season.
His numbers may be impressive, but Smith is playing a selfless brand of basketball and playing with a confidence and passion that we haven’t seen from him in years.
Smith draws multiple defensive assignments each night, guarding anyone from Monta Ellis to Dirk Nowitzki. Smith defended Ellis on the last two plays of Game 3, sealing the victory after forcing Ellis to clank a mid-range jumper at the buzzer with the chance to tie. According to SportVU, the Mavericks are shooting 37.0 percent at the rim against Smith in the series.
Smith’s passing is basically as good as it gets from a power forward, and we all know about his Game 2 oopfest with former AAU teammate Dwight Howard by now. Howard is shooting 81.8 percent on passes from Smith in the series.
Furthermore, Smith’s 5.5 Net Rating is the best on the Rockets this postseason for regular rotation players, per NBA.com.
Hats off to coach Kevin McHale for taking a flier on Smith and convincing him to buy into their style of play. Smith is finally starting to limit his mid-range jumpers and gravitate towards the rim and open looks for three. He’s still prone to some boneheaded plays and can be a little loose with the ball at times as evidenced by his 2.8 turnovers per game in the playoffs, but he has been mostly great.