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Josh Smith the Perfect Midseason Free-Agent Gamble for Houston Rockets

Published by Bleacher Report on Tue, 23 Dec 2014

Josh Smith and the Houston Rockets are, under the circumstances, made for each other.The Detroit Pistons waived the 10-year veteran, per a team release, sending seismic shockwaves throughout the NBA. Almost immediately, the Rockets emerged as favorites to land Smith, according to Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski."As we expand certain roles, others will be reduced," Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy said in the release. "In fairness to Josh, being a highly versatile 10-year veteran in this league, we feel it's best to give him his freedom to move forward."Although a variety of other teams remain interested in his services, Smith won't find a better way to move forward than by signing in Houston. And the Rockets, for their part, couldn't ask for a better low-risk, high-reward gamble to roll the dice on.Dollars and SenseAt his previous price tag, Smith wasn't worth the risk and potential headachesfor any team, per Slam Magazine'sJake Fischer:Smith represented a $40.5 million cap hit over the next three seasonsincluding this oneand would have crippled the financial flexibility of any team he landed on. The Rockets were apparently more willing than most to absorb his salary, according to Wojnarowski, but couldn't make the numbers work without relinquishing Dwight Howard or James Harden.Price isn't an issue anymore.Teams will have to place bids on Smith's services. Most interested parties can only offer $1.4 million, the veteran's minimum. Cap-rich contingents can dangle more, but those with money to burn are typically rebuilding and won't offer Smith a chance to play for something.Houston, meanwhile, has its biannual exception worth just under $2.1 million, giving general manager Daryl Morey a monetary edge in negotiations.Adding Smith at that price, even for two years, won't eat into projected cap space.Cap plasticity was the lone benefit of whiffing on Chris Bosh and losing Chandler Parsons over the offseason. The Rockets have just over $59 million in total salary commitments for next season, and they can cut around $10 million from that bottom line by declining various team options and qualifying offers if they so choose.With the salary cap expected to hit $66.5 million for 2015-16, the Rockets can now sign an impact player in Smith for however long without compromising their ability to add another one this summer. That kind of financial pliancy can be dangerous in the hands of Morey, who is forever finding ways to run down that next superstar.The Right RoleThere's a reason the Pistons decided to cut ties with Smith and stretch his remaining salary over the next half-decade or so rather than stick out a marriage with a 2016-17 expiration date: He wasn't good.Statistics have always had a mercurial relationship with Smith. He's someone who can fill the box score with points, rebounds, assists, blocks and steals, registering per-game numbers indicative of a more complete player. Not a single team would reject Smith's off year on its surface. Only 11 players have ever averaged at least 13.0 points, 7.0 rebounds, 4.5 assists and 1.5 blocks for an entire season. Smith is on pace to become the 12th.But his shot selection remains awful, and he cannot hityet still attemptsthree-pointers. At 6'9", he's also proved incapable of playing small forward, even for short spurts.Flaws have mushroomed for the worse this season. Smith is shooting a career-worst 39.1 percent from the floor, logging the lowest number of minutes (32) since his sophomore season and recording a below-average player efficiency ratingfor the second consecutive campaign after nine straight years of above-board PERs.Then there's this, per ESPN Stats & Info:And then this, via ESPN.com's Tom Haberstroh:Ebbing athleticism threatens to destroy Smith's stock. If he cannot reach the rim, he won't be effective. His jumper isn't strong enough; he's shooting just 32.1 percent outside of eight feet for the season.Unlike the Pistons, though, the Rockets aren't bogged down by faulty floor spacing. Even with Smith playing 80 percent of his minutes at power forward, Detroit lacked the shooters to create open paths to the basket.That won't be an issue for the Rockets, who are on pace to make and attempt the most three-pointers in NBA history. They are the collective three-point threat Detroit isn't by volume alone.This, of course, makes Smith an iffy fit on some level. Grantland's Zach Lowe explains why:Smith is a bad fit on the surface for a team that despises the midrange, but Daryl Morey has long operated under the assumption that talent figures things out. Smith would walk in as Houstons best power forward, and if his lack of shooting mucks up Howards pick-and-roll lanes and post game, the Rockets can separate them.The Rockets have attempted just 235 mid-range jumpers as a team thus far; Smith has jacked nearly half that many on his own (110), and his lifetime three-point rate (27.8 percent) lends little hope to the notion that he can morph into a defense-drawing shooter.Much of the logistic concerns are mitigated by Smith's position, though. He won't have to play small forward for a team that exclusively runs one-in, four-outsometimes zero-in, five-outlineups. And with one exception, Smith has always been better, nigh dominant, at the 4:Only oncehas his PER been higher at small forward, and that was in2011-12, per 82games.com, when only 5 percent of his minutes were spent at the 3.This season would also be the first time hedidn't eclipse a PER of 17.5 at power forward.Starting Smith at the 4, then, puts the Rockets in position to maximize his talents. Their shot selection takes care of the rest.To the surprise of no one, the Rockets lead the league in corner three-point attemptswith 293. While Smith is a rim-clanging detriment from beyond the arc, he's connecting on more than 57 percent of his treys from the corners. It's a small sample size no doubt (4-of-7), but he's traditionally fared better shooting from that area, according to NBA.com (subscription required).Used correctly, Smith can help improve the standing of Houston's 19th-place offense. He needs to be on a team that affords him looks inside the restricted areawhere he's shooting 55.4 percentand doesn't rely solely on his turbulent jumper. The Rockets are that team.Mutual FitThe list goes on and on for Smith and the Rockets. He's a friend of Howard's; Houston has "aggressively" pursued his services for at least two years, per Wojnarowski; he won't compromise a second-ranked defense; he's posting a career best assist rate (26.5); and he's an able body for a squad that's still missing Terrence Jones.Not even a checkered past with coachesis enough to overshadow the sensibility behind this pairing. Howard was never viewed as the most coachable player, and he's doing just fine under Kevin McHale. Playing for something other than lottery berths and early playoff exits will have that effect."Life couldn't be any better," Michael Pina wrote for Sports On Earth. "Smith would go from one of the most crowded, uncomfortable frontcourts in basketball to being the third or fourth option in a championship contender's starting lineup. Context is everything in the NBA, and in that role, Josh Smith would be scary."So too would the Rockets.Signing Smith deepens their talent pool, arming them with yet another weapon to use in the loaded Western Conference. They're already on track for the No. 4 seed. There's no limit to what they could accomplish upon adding someone once considered a star.There will indeed be plenty of things to iron out if Smith chooses Houston, from his shot selection to his ability to thrive as an off-ball scorer valued more for his playmaking within an offense that doesn't move the ball well. But there is still a role for him to carve out in Houston.And for the Rockets, there is no greater boon for their (already) soaring stock than signing the NBA's most talented misfit who, in reality, has yet to find a home like the one they can offer.Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference and NBA.comunless otherwise cited and are accurate as of games played Dec. 22, 2014. Salary information via HoopsHype.Follow @danfavale
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