Rockets Acquire Josh Smith: The Canary in the Coalmine

The Houston Rockets reacquired Josh Smith. In the basketball equivalent of Donald Trump’s proposal to make someone else build you a wall for free to insult the builder, the Rockets showed it’s possible. Houston sent the draft rights to Marty Leunen (A long forgotten foreign stashed asset, like a Swiss bank account or buried war treasure) to Los Angeles for Josh Smith. What makes this deal sweeter? LA is paying the balance of Smith’s salary.

This move jettisons an asset the Rockets were never going to use for a player they should have never let walk for absolutely no cost. Further, rumblings of Dwight Howard leaving Houston due to a lack of fit and issues raised by James Harden’s, let’s call it less than stellar, commitment to the game should be assuaged by this acquisition. The Smith-Howard combo, after all, is what saved the Rockets against the Clippers last year.

Smith comes to the Rockets after leaving last year to seek out greater minutes. During his time in LA he’s played 11 fewer minutes per game and averages 2 rebounds, 2 assists, and 7 points less per game. As expected, Smith’s renewed confidence, reportedly, led to a great deal of butting heads in the Clippers locker room. His return to Houston comes at a time when the Rockets have jettisoned their players’ coach, have called multiple player meetings and have shown some signs of tumult among each other. Smith could either gel the locker room or cause its final destruction.

I would hedge towards the locker room finally settling down. Smith’s relationship with the players and his ability to help the team defend should solidify the team. This move will impact the Capela/Howard pairing, however, in that you cannot place three players with no range on the court at the same time. Expect to see Smith as the starter next to Howard or as the first player off the bench to replace Capela.

Speaking of replacements, the Rockets’ acquisition of Josh Smith should serve as a signal on multiple fronts.

Personnel-wise Smith is a win-now move. Les Alexander expected the team to compete for a title this year after the Western Conference Finals trip. Smith’s role on the team places him in competition with Donatas Motiejunas, Terrence Jones, Sam Dekker, Montrezl Harrel, and Clint Capela. Of that group, Terrence Jones and Donatas Motiejunas have to be considered movable. Clint Capela has earned his spot on the roster. Dekker stretches the floor and Harrel is a long-term developmental prospect similar to Kenneth Faried. Arguably, the youngest on the roster are the safest.

The following appraisal is going to come with a lot of ifs, but work with me here. Smith returns to Houston on a one-year minimum salary deal. The salary cap explodes next year. If Smith gets the team to gel and the Rockets return to last year’s form, he could easily parlay that into a longer-term deal. This, undoubtedly, will play into the Dwight Howard decision at the end of the season. Further, this move suggests that Morey acknowledges that retention is an important aspect of a competent and successful Rockets team. What does this matter, though?

A team with Dwight Howard, Josh Smith, and Trevor Ariza needs a coach who instills discipline and instills defense. As much as it pains me to concede ground on the Tom Thibodeau or Jeff Van Gundy conversation, these coaches are defensive minded disciplinarians. Van Gundy, in particular, is personable to earn buy-in and affection from his players – even players as willingly obtuse as Josh Smith. The Rockets will be searching for a win-now coach in the offseason and defense will most likely be a central criterion to the choice.

Ultimately, the Rockets are heading towards the trade deadline and making their moves early. This is a good thing. Josh Smith is a signpost towards good things for the organization, both on the floor and in management. Expect to see the team stabilize and actually earn your viewership rather than take it for granted.

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