On Dec. 22, the Detroit Pistons decided it was best to part ways with a player they spent $48 million on after only one full season. While the debate on whether or not it was worth it for the Pistons has been argued ad nauseam, it’s inarguable that he has had an overwhelmingly positive impact on the Houston Rockets.
But after playing most of this season for a contract well below his market value – he signed a contract worth a little over $2 million to finish out the season – teams around the league need to decide exactly what Josh Smith is worth to them.
Smith has obvious flaws in his game, but passing isn’t one of them. Among players who qualified as a “forward” this season, only three players had a higher assist percentage than Smith, and it happened on a team that was only league average in total passes per game, per SportVU. Smith’s ability to be a secondary ball handler for the Rockets relieves some of the pressure that normally relies on James Harden. While there’s little doubt that his game doesn’t fit with every team, an extra ball handler who creates shots for others is something playoff teams such as the Raptors and Wizards could use, for the right price.
Forget about forwards, how many players in the league can make a pass like Smith did in the first-round series against the Mavericks?
Smith is also a good offensive rebounder for a player who spends as much time facilitating as he does. Smith grabbed almost two offensive rebounds per game, which helped the Rockets put forth a top 10 offense in the league since his signing, per NBA.com.
Smith’s weakness on offense is well known; he’s a willing shooter who doesn’t seem to understand his limitations when he hoists up his fifth mid-range jumper of the game that doesn’t come any closer than the first four. Although this is his only real weakness on offense, it should count for more than one as it often hurts his teams more than his positive attributes help.
Smith isn’t the defender he once was, but he still provides positive production in ways he hasn’t always done.
Since coming to Houston, Smith allowed opponents to shoot just over 46 percent at the rim on almost seven attempts per game, numbers that rival teammate Dwight Howard‘s numbers, per SportVU. (His playoff numbers in this category have been strong as well.) His ability to protect the rim allowed Houston to excel on defense this season despite losing Howard for 41 games due to injury. Among the top eight lineups the Rockets used this season with Smith, all but one had a positive net differential this season, and most of them used the 6’9″ Smith as the rim protector, according to Basketball-Reference.com.
An extra rim protector who forces opponents to alter their game plan on offense may have prevented the Mavericks from being embarrassed in the first round of the playoffs. Considering the Clippers only had cap room to sign free agents to minimum contracts, Smith was as good as the team could have hoped for had they signed him.
Another reason the Rockets’ defense was successful this season was their strategy to switch pick-and-rolls on defense. Smith is one of the better defenders in the league at this because even though he has declined some in his ability, he’s able to stay with guards making the pass to the roll man more difficult.
Many of the top defenses have the same strategy – Golden State does this almost exclusively and Milwaukee has the ability to do it with many lineups – but not every team is willing to take on the offensive burden that comes with Smith just to utilize him in pick-and-roll defenses.
Along with his offensive rebounding skills comes Smith’s defensive rebounding. Not many players combine the skills that Smith has on defense and grab almost five defensive rebounds per game.
Although it’s not the best indicator of good defense, Smith is one of only six players to average at least one block and steal this season, and did so in fewer minutes than the other five.
Smith is a special talent who also requires special attention. Put him in a bad situation and he’ll shoot you out of contention (Detroit), but give him a clear and defined role and he’ll help you get to the Western Conference Finals while also shooting way the hell too much (Houston).
Combining Smith’s free agency, the money he’s set to receive from Detroit and the exploding salary cap makes it difficult to put an exact value on what Smith is worth. There’s no doubt that teams like the Mavericks, Clippers and Raptors could use a player of Smith’s ability, but if a team like the Kings comes calling with a $10 million offer, expect a similar result that happened this year in Detroit.