A lot was made initially about the Pistons' incredible surge after cutting loose one of their highest-paid players, and they do seem to just fit together better without Smoove, despite Brandon Jennings' Achilles tear. The Rockets' winning percentage has dipped since they picked up Smith, but no one would tell you it's his fault.
The Pistons may in fact be experiencing addition by subtraction, but the Rockets picked Smith up on a relatively risk-free, one-year contract worth just over $2 million, which was a no-brainer for a player of his talent. Lots of teams wanted him, and the Rockets were lucky enough to land him. The question was never, "Is he worth it?" but rather, "Will he help or hurt the team?"
The Dream Shake community seemingly split into two camps at the time: those who believed in his talent and that he would be put in a better position to succeed than in Detroit (and if not, be easy to get rid of), and those who felt his style of play was anathema to the Rockets', some of whom thought that he would poison the locker room and alienate Dwight Howard with his friendship. Mostly, no one was sure about anything.
Let's check in on Josh now:
J-Smoove began his Rockets tenure with an ill-fated four-game stretch in which he started alongside Dwight Howard in the frontcourt. For whatever reason, he felt more comfortable coming off the bench, a move he suggested to Kevin McHale. He combined with the inimitable Corey Brewer and the hanging-around Jason Terry to form the Headband of Brothers, one of the best second units in basketball.
Enough with the background: Josh Smith has been an unmitigated success in Houston, a huge boon to a club that was incomplete before he arrived. It might still be short of a championship roster, but it's a hell of a lot closer with Smoove around. Let's break it down.
The scouting reports said that Josh Smith was a very good passer, but I hadn't seen much of him myself. Now that I have, I can say that he has downright elite court vision and is a truly gifted distributor. Look at him no-look passing to Corey Brewer on the break:
Yes, he turns the ball over more than you'd like. He averages 2.4 turnovers per game (3.4 per 36 minutes, highest of his career), more than every Rocket besides James Harden (4.0) and Dwight Howard (3.1). But I'd venture to say that his turnovers more closely resemble Harden's -- more frequent because of how often he's the primary ballhandler and distributor -- than those of Howard, who is a magnet for offensive fouls and pickpockets because of his ghastly post offense this season.
Seriously, how can you be mad at a guy for having slightly elevated turnover numbers when he can fire off passes like this?
The second half of that Vine is a nice segue for the other surprising development of Smith's Rockets tenure -- his shooting. Josh is hitting 36 percent of his three-pointers since he joined Houston. That's an above-average number! It would easily be a career high for him, and should be expected to regress, but still!
The more encouraging development has been Smith's shot selection. Here was his shot chart for the Pistons this season, from NBA.com:
And here's his shotchart since he joined the Rockets:
At first glance, there doesn't seem to be much of a difference here. Dig a little deeper, however, and his adaptation to Moreyball becomes clear.
According to Basketball-Reference, only 9.8 percent of his field goal attempts in Houston have come from that dreaded "long-two" range between 16 feet and the three-point line. That's easily a career low -- a full 25 percent of his shots for the Pistons this season were from that area. He's turned those long twos into threes, which he's hitting at a career-best rate. Look at that right corner! If he can continue to be a plus from that area, the Rockets' offense can be devastating.
What's more, Smoove is averaging more shots from within three feet of the hoop than he has since 2009-10. He's driving to score, and driving to distribute (see the crazy kickout pass above). Strangely though, he's averaging fewer free-throw attempts per 36 minutes than at any point in his career. One might take that to mean the he's becoming gun-shy due to his FT percentage falling off a cliff (it's at 47 percent this season), but his shot chart refutes that hypothesis -- he's even improved his percentage at the rim in Houston.
These are all pieces of the shooting puzzle, but here's the big picture: Smith's True Shooting percentage, which weights more valuable outcomes like three-pointers and free throws, is 49 percent. That's not great -- in fact, it's worse than every other Rockets rotation player besides Kostas Papanikolaou and Joey Dorsey. But for Detroit this year, Smoove was at 41.7 percent. Last year, 44.8 percent.
Despite all of this improvement, Smoove is still not a very good shooter who takes more midrange jumpers than he should. Shooting, however, is only one part of what a basketball player does on the court. It is a weakness for him among many strengths.
For his entire career in Atlanta, Josh Smith was a very-good-to-great defender. After his first two seasons, he was responsible for at least four Defensive Win Shares (per B-Ref) every season he was a Hawk. For reference, last year, Dwight Howard led the Rockets in DWS with 4.1.
In Detroit, Smoove's forced switch to small forward led to him guarding lots of quicker, smaller players, and his defense suffered as a result (he was also on a worse defensive team in general). Last year, he only accounted for 2.5 Defensive Win Shares.
This year, he had already shown improvement in Detroit before coming to Houston, where he's been the defensive anchor of the second unit. He's already accounted for 2.4 DWS (which is a cumulative stat, remember) in just over a half season, well on his way to another 4-plus full season of defensive brilliance.
According to NBA.com's player tracking data, Josh Smith is an above average defender in terms of opponent field goal percentage no matter where he is on the floor. Since joining the Rockets, opponents are shooting below league average from every distance on the floor when Smith is guarding them -- negative 2.8 percent overall, the same number as Donatas Motiejunas (who I've said has played great defense all year). Dwight Howard is at +0.4 percent, largely due to being absolutely awful guarding midrange shots (mostly on pick-and-roll switches and pick-and-pops, I'd guess).
Josh Smith's most valuable quality for the Rockets is his strength on the block. Even though he's only 6-9, he has often been tasked with playing center, especially since Dwight went down with his most recent injury. Joey Dorsey starts now, but he's only averaging 13 minutes even with Dwight's injury. D-Mo slips over to center once Dorsey inevitably picks up quick fouls, but after that, it's down to Smoove to guard the opponent's biggest player.
The fact that Josh has compiled sparkling individual defensive numbers with those matchups is astonishing. What's more, his on-court/off-court numbers since joining the Rockets paint the picture of a defensive anchor. Houston's defensive rating when Smith is off the court is a team-worst 105.4. He is the only Rocket not named James Harden who leaves the Rockets with a negative net rating when he is on the bench. Remember that for a little later.
I'll finish off his defense section with this, and rest my case:
This will obviously be the shortest section, since it's nearly all conjecture, but it's still important, if only to me.
Josh Smith's entire Detroit tenure was a debacle. He was paid a lot of money by a lame-duck GM who wanted to make a splash without concern for fit, he often played out of position on a team that was ill-suited to him in any case, and it wound up exacerbating a lot of his pre-existing bad habits. This much has been covered extensively.
It was shocking and nearly unprecedented for a player of Smith's caliber and pay grade to be released outright. The run the Pistons enjoyed following his release was fodder for lots of critics and wiseasses who were eager to hammer home just how poor of a choice Josh Smith was for Detroit. Much of the criticism extended to Josh himself, who hurt his own cause with his garbage shooting numbers. More people than you think went out of their way to call Smith a bad player, or more commonly, a selfish player, because of the shots he took and missed.
Well, look at him now. He has steadfastly refused to say anything negative about Detroit or the Pistons, demonstrating nothing but class when the basketball internet was heaping derision upon him. He's a quiet guy with little to no social media presence, which is exactly the right way to play it when you're a lightning rod for criticism from stat geeks and bloggers and the like.
From volunteering to come off the bench because he felt it was where he fit best to drastically reducing the number of groan-inducing midrange jumpers that made him such a target for scorn in Detroit, without the barest hint of complaint or discontent, Josh Smith has been a model teammate. He's obviously been embraced by the Rockets' locker room, and we can probably thank Dwight Howard for that (as well as recruiting him to Houston. Thanks Dwight!).
When you factor in how he's been off the court to the fact that he's very clearly one of the best Rockets on the court, and remember how cheap he is for the Rockets, you wind up with one of the best acquisitions in GM Daryl Morey's tenure in Houston. With luck, he'll be a Rocket for a long time.
An earlier version of this article listed Brandon Jennings' injury as an ACL tear, not an Achilles tear.