One of the league’s most criticized players might be redefining his career
For quite a long time I have been foremost in the Josh Smith haters, and I think J-Smoove has historically given plenty of reason to foster a large dissenting community. Whether it’s the awful shooting efficiency—although Grantland recently released a piece detailing the NBA’s least efficient shooters, and Smith, alas, missed the cut!—or the rumors that, when becoming a free agent, Smith insisted he become an instant starter at his next destination, the track record points to the fact that he’s a bit of a nuisance. What’s more, and what may be the most defining aspect of his career up to this point, is that it has always seemed that Josh Smith is a lot better in his own eyes than in reality.
In his second season with the Detroit Pistons, Josh Smith just wasn’t working out. That’s, of course, putting it mildly. Last year, with Smith “leading” the way, the Pistons finished 29-53. Not very splendid. After 28 games with Smith in the rotation this year, Detroit decided it was time to part ways.
Introduce the Houston Rockets.
Now, let’s pause for a moment and consider the fact that, when Houston acquired Smith, there was the two-fold hilarious aspect of the Detroit Pistons suddenly winning a zillion games in a row and the Houston Rockets sucking really terribly, and everybody—including me, including this website, including probably Josh Smith himself—was grumbling and laughing hysterically all at the same time, knowing it was a bad situation getting worse. Then, little by little, things began to change, and suddenly the Rockets are no longer the laughingstock of the league but, rather, on the cusp of the two-seed in the Western Conference and riding a strong final month of the season into the playoffs.
And guess what? Josh Smith has legitimately helped make this happen. Here’s how:
Smith is playing far fewer minutes than he has ever in his career. For the first time since his rookie season, J-Smoove is playing fewer than thirty minutes per game. Which means he’s shooting less. Which means his misses—which are still many, although he has pretty dramatically improved his statistics almost across the board from the first 28 games in Detroit—which means his masses matter less, because there are fewer of them happening.
Less pressure, more production. Maybe the biggest change for Smith is the dramatically less scrutiny he’s facing. In other words, he’s not the guy. He’s not even the second guy. He’s not really even the third guy for the Rockets, who after Harden and Howard boast Trevor Ariza, Corey Brewer, and Terrence Jones—among others. Smith fits into a medley of tertiary options.
More focus on defense. Smith came into Houston wanting to focus on defense, and he’s done a pretty good job of it. Okay, look, he’s not Serge Ibaka or DeAndre Jordan or anything, but he’s a flexible player who, because of the reduced minutes, can bang around on the boards, block some shots, and be compatible with multiple types of lineups.
In the end, for Smith, a player who’s played for some really bad teams, a championship with Houston would represent not only an ecstatic climax but a sort of personal redemption. The role that Smith has taken and embraced in Houston is radically different than any he’s taken in all his eleven years in the league. He’s a new-look player with a new-look team, and every minor success he has carves a different shape into what will become his ultimate legacy.