Josh Smith Is Best Suited To Continue Coming Off The Bench


Monday night in Chicago, Josh Smith was able to pitch in 21 points (10/20), 6 rebounds, 2 assists, and 3 steals. Arguably his 2nd best game as a Houston Rocket (minus the 4 turnovers and 5 attempted 3-Pointers). His first being his premiere night in Memphis and his 3rd being the night before.

It doesn’t take an expert to derive the common trend amongst all these games -Smith was coming off the bench and Donatas Motiejunas was starting in front of him.

The common train of thought that’s being accepted is that Josh Smith will eventually start for the Rockets. However, considering his body of work as a starter compared to as a bench player, is it really a good idea for Houston to head in that direction?

Statistically, it’s a no brainer. Here are Smith’s averages as a starter vs. as a reserve:

Starter (Record 0-3)

4.33 Points
5.33 Rebounds
1.33 Assists
2.33 Steals

25% FG Percentage

Off The Bench (Record 4-1)

14.4 Points
5.2 Rebounds
2 Assists
0.8 Steal

52.4% FG Percentage

The numbers speak for themselves. He produces much better as a bench player than he does as a starter. Why is this so?

Offensively, when Smith is put into the game as a starter, he looks just completely lost out on the floor. He hasn’t acclimated to the read-and-react offensive system as well as Motiejunas has. He becomes way to passive to a point where it causes turnovers.

McHale said it best when he something along the lines of: Smith was looking to pass first on every drive he made. He was thinking too much. This is true. It looked almost as if he was the new guy that didn’t want to step on anyone’s toes.

Dec 28, 2014; San Antonio, TX, USA; Houston Rockets small forward

Josh Smith

(5) talks with

Dwight Howard

(12) during the second half against the San Antonio Spurs at AT&T Center. The Spurs won 110-106. Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

Although the Dwight and Josh pairing might have worked in AAU basketball, it hasn’t worked so far in NBA. Smith tended to extend out and play in the midrange area and the behind the arc to overcompensate for the amount of space Dwight Howard required. The pick and roll was seldom used among the big men so that wasn’t an option. It just wasn’t natural. It didn’t seem natural to begin with and it doesn’t seem natural now.

Defensively, the pairing wasn’t ideal as well. On paper, you would think Smith and Howard would lock down the paint. This just wasn’t the case. Smith is a defensive player that depends mostly on his length and athleticism. He’s not great at moving laterally on defense or closing out shooters. While there’s nothing wrong with relying on your physical gifts, the type of defender you want to put next to Howard needs to be on the move at all times. Let me explain:

Howard is the type of defender that lingers around in the paint (primarily to protect the rim). He’s not going to close out shooters (mid-range or 3-PT). He’s the prototypical “rim protecter”. Analytically, he’s one of the best in the business if not the best. You NEED someone who can move laterally on defense to pair alongside him because he’s got the paint locked down on most occasions.

Nov 19, 2014; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Rockets forward

Donatas Motiejunas

(20) dunks the ball during the second quarter against the Los Angeles Lakers at Toyota Center. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

This is where Motiejunas comes in.

The Motiejunas and Howard pairing has worked for a long time and it has continued to thrive in the Josh Smith era. Although he’s not the “perfect fit” next to Howard, the Ryan Andersons, Chris Boshs, and the Paul Millsaps of the world are not on the market so Motiejunas is as good as your going to get.

Sure he might not stretch the floor as good as those other guys I’ve just mentioned, but he doesn’t crowd the paint like Josh Smith and he’s a legitimate option to go to in the post when shots aren’t falling. He’s a great pick and roll player, even with Howard, and his passing ability is underrated. He’s able to find Howard better than Smith and he’s able to create off of the post.

Don’t get me wrong – Smith is a great passer/creator but he’s much better suited to do that with the second unit with Jason Terry and Corey Brewer.

As much as people like to talk about D-Mo’s footwork offensively, defensively it’s just as good. Motiejunas brings that lateral defender that just pairs so perfectly with Howard. He’s able to close out shooters – which is essential in this league at the power forward position because there are so many “stretch 4s”. He’s also able to hold his own against elite post presences. (Perhaps not as good as Smith in this aspect but that’s an area your willing to sacrifice for the lateral movement he brings) He’s just a big reason the Rockets are playing at an elite level defensively this year.

Motiejunas’ improvement this year cannot go overstated. He’s rightfully earned every minute of playing time that he’s been given and even when benched, he’s showed that he rightfully belongs out on the floor with that starting unit.

So we know why Smith wasn’t effective as a starter, why is he doing so well off the bench?

Jan 5, 2015; Chicago, IL, USA; Houston Rockets forward Josh Smith (5) drives in for a layup against Chicago Bulls forward

Taj Gibson

(22) during the game at United Center. Mandatory Credit: Caylor Arnold-USA TODAY Sports

To be frank, Josh Smith has ran his course as a potential starter on a championship level team. His game is now much better suited to be a Taj Gibson or a Brandan Wright off the bench. It just fits the bill – athletic player that can score very well in transition, around the basket, and in the midrange area. He’s able to play much more free out on the court, he doesn’t have to think, and he’s one of the main options in the second unit so he doesn’t have to worry about deferring as much or stepping on anyone’s toes.

Also, his turnovers are limited, his poor shot selection is reduced to a minimum, and not much is expected of him as a bench player which in turn leads to a huge load off his shoulders and he’s able to play the game freely. He also helps the bench production (which has been poor for the most part) a ton.

McHale also has the luxury of resting Howard more by playing Motiejunas at the center position and playing Smith at power forward. It’s just a win-win situation where you can’t go wrong and keep the potential chemistry disruption to a minimum of need be.

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The best part about all this is, if Smith ever has an off night (like last night in New York), McHale can easily limit his minutes coming off the bench. It’s a much smoother of a transition with Smith being a bench player because there isn’t that obligation to make him finish games or play starters minutes. Also, with Smith being a poor free throw shooter (31.6% as a Rocket), it’s actually a good idea to have him on the bench at the end of games with Motiejunas being just a notch above him at 60.7% and having Dwight Howard out on the floor who is already a poor free throw shooter (49.7%). It’s best to avoid those “Hack-a-Shaq” situations.

In this league, you can be a good talent and come off the bench. Manu Ginobili and Jamal Crawford have done it for years for their respective teams. Its starting to become very common among bigs: Kosta Koufos, Boris Diaw, Taj Gibson, Kelly Olynyk, Steve Blake, Steven Adams, Ryan Anderson, Tristan Thompson, and Brandan Wright are all examples of quality big men playing off the bench. It doesn’t mean you can’t get good playing time or make an impact on a team it’s just an alternative method of doing so.

Playing Smith off the bench is just the smarter option. Whether McHale decides to continue to do so is all up left to speculation.