There are few better bargains in the NBA than getting a solid to good player for the veteran’s minimum. In the case of Josh Smith, the Los Angeles Clippers got quite the bargain considering how good he can be and what he’s simply shown during his time in the NBA. During last season, Smith spent time on two teams – Detroit Pistons and Houston Rockets – and carved out a niche for himself in the second stop. The Clippers swooped in and signed him for pennies this offseason and it’s time to bring back the Film Room series in order to see just exactly what the team might be getting from him.
At the veteran’s minimum, it’s hard to argue with Josh Smith as a signing considering he does a few things quite well. He can defend at a respectable rate, can rebound and push the ball on the break, and can also be a playmaker. At his peak, which was probably his second to last season with the Atlanta Hawks, Smith averaged nearly 19 points, 10 rebounds, and 4 assists. He was a do-it-all hyperactive forward who wreaked havoc on the opposition. Over the last several years, though, he’s regressed because of his propensity to get away from the things that he did well. But his time in Houston, outside of chucking up threes, allowed him to get back to that level of play.
To go forward with Smith’s career, we’re going to first go backwards to the beginning of last season when he still played for the Pistons and welcomed the Golden State Warriors into Detroit. Smith didn’t have an overly great game efficiency wise but he still produced. He finished the game with 14 points, 12 assists, 9 rebounds, and 4 steals but shot just 6-for-18. He did have some key moments, though. One of them is what will start off this Film Room series.
This play is one of the things Josh Smith can give the Clippers this upcoming season. On this play, his primary defensive assignment is Draymond Green. He follows Draymond around the arc on the handoff and keeps a watchful eye on Green in the corner. As Klay Thompson penetrates into the lane, Smith pinches down to supply some help defense and it actually works because Thompson has to dribble the ball back out of trouble. He passes the ball to Andrew Bogut and Bogut throws it into the waiting arms of Smith. The thing that Smith does well here is that he shadows Green and then crashes down to stop a drive before recovering back to Green in the corner when Thompson is trapped. It cancels out any chance Thompson had of attempting a shot or completing a pass for a corner three point attempt. Instead, he had to dump it to Bogut and then Smith read that Harrison Barnes was open underneath the hoop after Kyle Singler lost sight of him. Smith jumped the passing lane and got the steal.
This seems like a relatively simple play by Smith but it’s quite complicated. He diagnosed what Golden State was trying to do and ultimately stifled what looks they were trying to get. If he doesn’t help down on Thompson’s drive, then perhaps Thompson gets a shot off. If he doesn’t recover back out to Green then Green has a shot at a wide open corner three. You never want to give those up. And, then, Smith notices that one of his teammates lost containment on their own assignment and stepped in to fill the void. It was a really heady play by Smith and one that the Clippers will hope to see a lot of this upcoming season. If there’s one thing Smith can do, it’s provide great defensive versatility off the bench and it’s something Los Angeles has greatly lacked. This is just one example, though.
This play is another one that Smith made during the same game. Stephen Curry is matched up against Brandon Jennings and rather than try to take advantage of that, Golden State has Draymond Green step up to set a simple slip screen that allows Curry to turn the corner. Smith plays the screen well enough to push Curry towards the sideline and baseline rather than allowing him to split the seam. It forces Curry into an awkward position and Smith just simply rips the ball loose and takes it away from Curry. This isn’t a fancy play or a flashy play. It’s a smart play. He denies Curry the split, forces him into a bad position, and takes the ball from him. This is the reigning Most Valuable Player that he got out of sorts here. Kudos beyond measure are due.
Nothing flashy here, either. It’s simple timing and reflex. Ben McLemore of the Sacramento Kings shimmies to his right and fires up a mid-range elbow jumper that is off the mark. Kyle Singler is no match for Jason Thompson here and Thompson, who is now apart of the Golden State Warriors, snatches the rebound over Singler. Smith starts out at the free throw line during this sequence and gradually starts to walk closer to the rim as the shot goes up. Thompson gets the board, Smith jumps and blocks his shot, and Detroit snags the ball. This is Smith’s versatility. He’s adequate enough to steal the ball and he’s athletic enough to block shots. Thompson had, by all relative means, an easy shot. Smith turned it into a block and saved his team two points.
A few minutes later, Smith got another block. This time, Rudy Gay tried to take him baseline early in the shot clock but Smith played it solidly. He turns his hips a tad late but still uses his body well enough to bump Gay further from the hoop as he started to go up with the shot. Gay tries to throw up a little right-handed layup attempt but Smith sends it packing and the Pistons get the ball. Credit to Kyle Singler here for also coming over and providing some help defense but Smith’s combination of athleticism, strength, and length caused Gay problems. Few other forwards in the game possess that kind of unique combination defensively.
While Josh Smith does have some flaws on the defensive side of things – namely he can be caught napping off the ball, caught out of position, and gamble needlessly with lazy attempts at steals – he still has a rare understanding of defense. It’s not every day you come across a hybrid forward with his abundance of skill. Whether he’s blocking shots, walling off driving guards and recovering, or simply darting in to a passing lane and being a thief, Smith gives the Clippers a unique perspective on defense. The bench last year lacked this kind of athleticism and game-changing explosiveness. Smith will bring that this season. And that’s not the only side of the floor he’ll be bringing something different than what they’ve had in years past.
If the Clippers want to avoid being called "Lob City" for the fifth year in a row, then perhaps signing Josh Smith wasn’t the way to go. While Smith brings a rare combination of skills defensively, he also brings a unique skillset offensively. He’s not a three point threat – despite what Game 6 of the 2015 Western Conference Semifinals might tell you – and he’s not someone who should be relied upon for major offense. However, regardless of that, he does give the Clippers something kind of cool out of a bench big man. He can throw lobs. And he can throw them with great accuracy; just like on this play up above.
Not many forwards are able to throw that accurate of a lob pass on a dead sprint. Smith has the ball in transition, keeps his head up, and locates Andre Drummond running the floor. Drummond, while a great lob threat, is certainly not close to the same level of lobtasticness – this word is here to stay – as DeAndre Jordan. That creates something quite new and spectacular. Smith sees Drummond, fires a pinpoint pass over the top, and gets his team an easy two points. Picture perfect. If Smith and Jordan play together at all this season, which could be an issue given their joint free throw woes, then this could be something we see; i.e. Smith getting the ball off of a rebound, running the break, and lobbing it up to Jordan for the easy dunk. Gets you a little giddy, doesn’t it?
Yet again we see Josh Smith, Lob Passer Extraordinaire. Smith starts this possession by running into a little slip screen for James Harden and Harden pocket passes it right into the hip of Smith. Because of Smith’s athleticism, Tyson Chandler has to step up and try to prevent whatever look Smith might be getting on his roll to the basket. Smith stops short and fires a sky high lob pass to Dwight Howard, who happens to be roaming the baseline free since Chandler had to step up. Easy deuce and Houston is asserting their dominance over Dallas. This is the thing. Smith has a history of throwing short roll lobs to guys like Drummond and Howard. Now he gets to throw them to guys like Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan. It creates a whole new set of problems for defenses. We might see ridiculous levels of hacking in order to stop looks like this.
This is actually a crazy alley-oop pass here. New Clipper, and former Rocket, Pablo Prigioni hands the ball off to Josh Smith at the three-point line only to see Smith dribble left. Smith and Dwight Howard run a quick little 4-5 pick-and-roll set here – which is something the Clippers run – and it frees up Howard for another slam dunk off of a lob. Smith throws a one-handed jump pass from the free throw line and Howard smashes it down. Because of Dirk Nowitzki’s lack of agility and athleticism at this stage of his career, he’s as helpless and clumsy as a baby giraffe shortly after birth. This could be Smith and Jordan next season. Or even, as stated, Smith and Griffin.
The possibilities are endless as far as the Clippers are concerned when it comes to using Josh Smith and either Blake Griffin or DeAndre Jordan. Because of Griffin’s reputation as a highly regarded passer, the team could get away with playing them together and having them exchange lob dunks and lob passes. In that scenario, Smith would be the defensive backline defender while Griffin roams and does his thing. If Smith and Jordan were to play together, they’d be a defensive nightmare for teams with their athleticism and length while Smith throws endless lobs to Jordan. Either way, the Clippers now have something they didn’t have off the bench last season; versatility, both defensively and offensively. No word on whether or not the Clippers dare to try a Smith-Griffin-Jordan front line but, in spurts against the right competition, it could prove effective.
Smith isn’t some kind of whirlwind offensive talent. Yes, he can score points but mostly you want him living on baskets around the rim. Anytime he fires up a jumper, you sort of cringe much in the same way you do when Jordan gets the ball late in the shot clock and has to hoist up some weird hook shot. Without question, Smith should live around the hoop. On this play, Smith tries to dribble to the left off of a secondary break only to get stymied by Al-Farouq Aminu. (Side note: congratulations to Aminu on a well-deserved contract.) After getting stopped, Smith picks up his dribble and bounce passes to a posted up Dwight Howard against Amar’e Stoudemire. Howard throws up an odd right-handed hook shot only to miss completely. However, Smith attacks the glass once Aminu tries to help on the Howard shot. Smith catches, gathers, and goes back up all in one motion. This is something the bench also didn’t have last year; a guy who could make chicken salad out of chicken excrement.
This last play features a nice little pick-and-roll game between the two of the newest Clippers. Smith runs up to set a screen for Prigioni and darts towards the lane. Prigioni doesn’t get Smith the ball right way but ultimately does so when Dirk Nowitzki steps up to meet him about twelve feet from the rim. Prigioni then throws an absolutely beautiful left-handed behind-the-back pass to a cutting Smith, who then puts it up and in with his off (read: right) hand. This is stellar. Especially since these two will be working together this season and likely will have someone like Wesley Johnson or Jamal Crawford standing where Corey Brewer is on this play, Austin Rivers where Nick Johnson is, and either Blake Griffin or DeAndre Jordan down low as a secondary lob option. Smith isn’t going to convert 100 percent of his shots around the rim but shots like these have a higher chance of going in than his shots from outside ten feet do.
Josh Smith isn’t a glamorous signing. He’s not as earthshattering as LaMarcus Aldridge is, but Smith will mean a whole lot to the Clippers if he continues to buy into the role that Doc Rivers will be giving him. As an energetic and versatile forward off the bench, Smith can carve out quite a spot for himself and help the Clippers reach heights they’ve never ascended to before. He’s not a perfect player or a complete player, but Smith might be the right player off the bench. His offensive and defensive skillfulness and flexibility are things the team has not had at their disposal recently. Smith could or could not pay off in a big way. But if he does what he’s good at and keeps it simple without letting the situations get too big for him, this team could unlock what once made him so great. That’s a win-win for all sides; especially when considering the cost.