We're running a series of "exit interviews" of the 2011 Los Angeles Clippers. An overview and analysis, player by player, of all 14 Clippers who finished the 2010-2011 season on the roster. In this edition: bruising forward Craig Smith.
Name: Craig Smith
2010-11 Key Stats: 5.4 ppg, 2.4 rpg, 55.3% FG%, 12.2 mpg
Years in the NBA: 5
Years with the Clippers: 2
2010-2011 Salary: $2,300,000
Contract Status: Unrestricted free agent
In a Nutshell
Hampered by a lingering back injury, Craig Smith played in just 48 games last season, a career-low for someone who had missed a combined 20 contests in his first four years in the league. In the games Smith did suit up for, the Clippers used him sparingly, which isn't surprising seeing as how they had Blake Griffin at the same position and Smith fouls far too often to stay on the floor for long.
Still, before the season began, Smith figured to be one of the team's most reliable backups, and for most of November, he was just that. He finished the month averaging 7.1 points on 61.5% shooting, providing quality minutes for a team that lost Chris Kaman to a sprained ankle on Nov. 9. At the time, Smith appeared headed for another one of his efficient, under-the-radar seasons, and at a bargain -- the Clippers had signed him to a one-year, $2.3-million deal in July.
But then, in a win against the Chicago Bulls on Dec. 18, Smith suffered a herniated disc in his lower back and didn't return to action until late February. He never got into much of a groove the rest of the way, probably because of the long layoff time and the fact that recovering from a herniated disc is as tricky as it sounds. During his absence, the Clippers had taken a flyer on Ike Diogu, who basically replicated Smith's numbers at an even lower price tag. Toward the end of the season, Smith reclaimed his role as primary bruiser off the bench, but it's safe to say he ended up having the most disappointing year of what has been a quietly productive career.
For a man his size, Smith shows surprising agility and touch around the basket. He's also an expert at using his strength and wide base to overpower opponents in the paint, and together, these traits help make him one of the league's most efficient post players on a per-minute basis. Per 40 minutes last season, he averaged 17.6 points and 8.0 rebounds to complement a .592 true shooting percentage, the fourth straight year he's finished with at least a .590 mark in that category.
What makes Smith's productivity impressive is the variety with which he gets his buckets, even as he regularly faces much taller players. He's a capable scorer in almost any situation -- post-ups, cuts, pick-and-rolls, put-backs, even the occasional spot-up -- and though he struggles to elevate, he makes good use of the glass, as well as a clever array of floaters and flip shots. If needed, he can put the ball on the floor and either bull his way to the hoop or drive past bigger players, provided he gets enough of a running start.
Smith shot 65% in the restricted area last season, a remarkable clip considering he's essentially a 6'6" power forward. Perhaps even more striking was the fact that he made 58% of his attempts in the paint (non-restricted area), easily eclipsing the likes of Blake Griffin and Chris Kaman. Of course, you could say that Smith benefited from a small sample size, but there's no denying the value of his unique skill-set for what was an offensively-challenged second unit.
If Smith doesn't let his lack of height hold him back on offense, he's far less successful on the other end of the floor. On defense, he can't check anyone except power forwards and he's not particularly good in those assignments to begin with. He moves his feet well, but he's still too heavy to stay in front of most 4s and often gets caught reaching, which helps explain his extreme tendency to get into foul trouble (last season he averaged one foul every seven minutes). And though he has the strength to hold his position against nearly any opponent, he's too short to bother shots. Not exactly Chuck Hayes we're talking about here.
To compound his problems, Smith isn't much of a factor on the defensive glass. He may be relentless when it comes to grabbing offensive boards, but he's much quieter on the other end of the floor. Last season he posted a career-low in defensive rebounding rate (14.6%), making it even more difficult for the Clippers to hide him on defense. The few but conspicuous occasions Smith and 6'8" Ike Diogu took the floor together were among the most horrifying sights of a season filled with ugly play.
Future with the Clippers
Smith would probably be a lock to return next season if it weren't for Diogu, who, for a mid-season pickup, turned out to be a pleasant surprise. Both players are free agents this summer, and after observing their somewhat redundant talents, I can't see the Clippers bringing both of them back. Brian Cook will almost undoubtedly exercise his player option for next season, and the Clips could use an extra roster spot to shore up the depth at another position -- center, for example.
Fortunately for Smith, he does have a few things going for him. The first is his track record, one you'd be inclined to trust over Diogu's, which includes missing all of 2009-2010 following microfracture knee surgery. Digou played aggressively last season, but there's no telling how much longer that left knee will hold up. Despite standing a couple inches shorter and not being on the same level as a rebounder, Smith is clearly a better offensive option than Digou, who also isn't a leaper and often struggled to finish at the rim. What's more, Smith evidently received a much stronger endorsement from Vinny Del Negro over the final two months of the season, when he played in almost every game while Diogu consistently registered DNP-CDs.
Even considering his current competition, Smith looks like a strong candidate to remain a Clipper next season. He works hard, provides much-needed offense off the bench and comes at a very reasonable price. The back injury and conditioning are causes for mild concern, and defense will never be Smith's strong suit, but the Clippers could certainly use his services going forward, if only in small doses.
Other 2011 Exit Interviews