The Redemption of Josh Smith

Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY Sports

Josh Smith became one of the league’s punching bags over the past few years. Once known as a versatile forward with dizzying athleticism, Smith became more known for his mystifying shot selection and bricked jumpers. But as this season has gone on, Smith has become the embodiment of the saying “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.”

Smith was so bad with the Detroit Pistons that Stan Van Gundy flat out waived him in December. Never a good fit with the Pistons because of the presence of Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe, Smith often lounged around on the perimeter and launched terrible jumpers. The enigmatic forward shot 39.1 percent overall and 24.3 percent from three in 28 games with the Pistons this season, and Detroit was outscored by 11.6 points per 100 possessions with him on the court, per NBA.com.

With Smith on the market and available for cheap after being waived, the Houston Rockets swooped in and took a chance on him. That risk has paid off handsomely in the postseason. Smith has found his niche with the Rockets thanks in part to playing his more natural position of power forward, and he has played a key role in both series victories.

In the first round against the Dallas Mavericks, Smith and Dwight Howard, former AAU teammates, teamed up over and over again for alley-oop dunks. Smith has always been a gifted passer, and the Mavericks’ weak interior defense had little hope of stopping that duo when running 4/5 pick-and-rolls. Smith consistently made solid decisions with the ball, resulting in those easy dunks.

In that first round, Smith averaged 17.4 points, 6.4 rebounds and 3.8 assists in 25.6 minutes per game. He also shot 51.5 percent from the field overall and an incredible 39.1 percent from three on 4.6 attempts from deep per game. That poor shot selection hasn’t totally left Smith, but in a shocking twist, some of those questionable three-pointers have gone in.

The regression to the mean was ugly for Smith in the first four games of the second-round series against the Los Angeles Clippers. In those first four games, he made just 9-of-33 shots and 1-of-9 from three-point range. Not coincidentally, the Rockets found themselves down 3-1 in the series and on the verge of elimination.

But Smith found his stroke again in the last three games of the series, helping Houston become just the ninth team in NBA history to erase a 3-1 series deficit. In those last three games, he made 15-of-26 shots and 7-of-14 from deep.

Smith’s biggest contributions came in Game 6, and specifically during the Rockets’ insane second-half comeback that saw them erase a 19-point deficit. He scored 14 of his 19 points in the fourth quarter, shooting 4-of-5 from the field and 3-of-4 from long distance in the final frame. The 29-year-old then followed that up with 15 points in the Game 7 clincher, beating the team that tried to sign him before he joined Houston.

Through two rounds of the postseason, Smith has the best net rating on the Rockets, and he’s one of just three players with a positive net rating. Houston has outscored opponents by 2.6 points per 100 possessions with Smith on the court in the playoffs, per NBA.com. Furthermore, the Rockets have scored 111.9 points per 100 possessions with Smith on the floor in the postseason, which is also the best on the team.

Want even more craziness? Smith is shooting better from three in the postseason than Kyle Korver. Smith is at 37.0 percent from long range, while Korver is at 35.0 percent. Sure, small sample size and everything, but that’s still wild.

No matter what happens the rest of the way, Smith has proven to be a wise investment for Houston. He has shown that he can still be of value to a team if put in the right position, rather than just be a team killer. This has been sweet redemption for the much-maligned forward, and perhaps he can help the Rockets shock the world again in the Western Conference Finals against the Golden State Warriors.

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