With Motiejunas struggling with early foul trouble in recent starts and a daunting match-up with regular Rocket killer Blake Griffin on the horizon, underdog backup Greg Smith got a chance to prove himself on Saturday with the first start of his NBA career.
And he didn't disappoint.
Smith and Asik smothered Griffin most of the night, holding the perennial All-Star to 12 points and 3 rebounds on a sub .500 shooting night as the Rockets upset the Clippers without the Beard donning Rockets red. Statistically, Smith posted a modest 9 points and 8 rebounds, but he only had 1 foul in 30 minutes and the Rockets were clearly just a better basketball team with him on the floor.
In his second start against Orlando, we saw the epitome of what we've come to expect from Smith: an efficient offensive performance with 12 points and 4 boards in only 21 minutes due to early foul trouble. But Smith and Asik helped Houston jump out to a huge early lead in the first quarter which they would never relinquish.
The better big man
With these two performances, the 22-year-old Smith proved he is every bit as deserving to start the remainder of the regular season and the playoffs as Motiejunas, and he gives this team the best chance to win in the short-term. Granted it's a small sample size, but he's averaged 10.5 points, 6 rebounds and 3.0 fouls on 53% shooting in 25.5 minutes compared to D-Mo's 9.3 points, 3.4 boards and 3.1 fouls on 46% shooting in 21.2 minutes in his 14 starts.
Aside from just basic stats, Smith is clearly just a better defender at the 4 spot than Motiejunas has been. While he has looked out of sync defensively at times at center this year, it's hard to step in and take over with Asik on the bench, because the Turk covers so much space on that end and makes up for so many other guys' deficiencies.
According to 82games.com, opposing centers had a 19.6 PER against Smith, compared to only a 6.0 PER for opposing power forwards through March 21. Again, that's a small sample size, but it's a trend which would probably continue if Smith got more time at the 4 the remainder of the year.
Another case for Smith can be made on the glass, where he's clearly got an advantage. His 17.0 TRB% this season is well above average for a PF and his 8 rebounds against the Clippers was more than every one of Motiejunas' starts with the exception of D-Mo's 8 boards against Dallas on March 3. D-Mo has posted a 9.0 TRB% this year, which is so bad it makes me daydream for the days of Patrick Patterson's mediocre board totals.
Offensively is where the argument gets a little muddled, but you can't deny Smith's insane efficiency on that end, where he's a miniature Tyson Chandler. Like the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, Smith doesn't take shots he can't make, converts on second chance points from offensive rebounds and plays well in a pick and roll offense driving to the basket. Shot selection is something you usually have to teach with young players, but Smith has that part down. He shoots a career 63% from the floor and has a career 64% true shooting percentage.
What Smith doesn't do is spread the floor. According to 82games.com, only 14% of his shot attempts have been jumpers. He also doesn't create for himself as 77% of his attempts have been assisted. By comparison, 89% of Motiejunas' attempts are jumpers, although 76% of his shots were also assisted.
The obvious bonus to having D-Mo on the floor is he spreads out defenses to provide more space for penetrators like Lin, Harden and Parsons, but it's not as if he's making many of his perimeter jumpers lately (only 30% on three-pointers this season) and Smith could still help out the Rockets offensively by banging the offensive glass and destroying the rim with his earth-shattering dunks.
Short term versus long term
In the long run, Motiejunas probably has a higher ceiling because of his superior range and offensive post skills, but D-Mo hasn't helped the Rockets win many games this season and Smith has. He carried the Rockets against the Lakers early in the season and he still has yet to lose a game as a starter.
Smith brings more to the table at this point in their careers and it's not completely out of the realm of possibility he could develop into a starter in this league. Per 36 minutes this season, he's averaged 14 points, 11 rebounds and a block. And his 16.4 PER and .174 WS/48 are well above league averages for big men. I can envision the inevitable comments from this post from fans who chant "Per 36 numbers are never reliable!" and "Small sample size!." But analysts said the same thing about Asik, and that has worked out pretty well so far.
Smith will probably have to develop some semblance of a mid-range game or a post game to ever be a long-term starter, but this Rockets team is far from contending, there's only eight games left in the season and he gives them the best chance to win a playoff series right now.