10. Rockets acquire point guard Kenny Smith from Hawks - 9/28/90
Rockets acquire: G Kenny Smith, G Roy Marble
Hawks acquire: G John Lucas, C Tim McCormick
We kick our Top 10 series off with a name you might not have expected given the rich lore of the Houston Rockets franchise, but one who earned his spot in team history with clutch play, sharpshooting from deep, and the hardware to back it up.
On September 28, 1990, the Rockets traded shattered guard John Lucas, who was useless at that point in his career, along with center Tim McCormick to the Atlanta Hawks for guards Kenny Smith and Roy Marble.
Smith, who started his career in Sacramento and spent just one year with the Hawks, was coming off the worst season of his career to that point, playing in just 33 games for Atlanta, where he averaged only 7.7 points and 4.3 assists. He shot a basement-low 16 percent from beyond the arc.
But Smith immediately received new life in H-town, taking over the first-team point guard job from veteran Sleepy Floyd and started in 78 games in the 1990-1991 season.
He averaged a career-high 17.7 points and 7.1 assists in his first year with the Rockets, to go along with a 52-percent shooting percentage and 36 percent from deep. He was Houston’s third-leading scorer, behind only Hakeem Olajuwon and Otis Thorpe.
Houston finished with a 52-30 record and were bounced in the first round of the playoffs by the Los Angeles Lakers, but some initial championship seeds were sewn, as Smith joined Olajuwon, Thorpe, Vernon Maxwell, and Matt Bullard in forming a core of players that would eventually lead the franchise to championship glory.
Of course, it wasn’t all smooth sailing, as the Rockets missed the playoffs the following season for the first time in eight years. Head coach Don Cheney was fired midseason and replaced by assistant Rudy Tomjanovich, which would later turn out to be the perfect move for a team that had never before won a ring.
Smith did finish with another fine year statistically, averaging 14 points and 7 assists per game. He shot 47 percent from the field and 39.4 percent from three.
Smith’s minutes began to decline slightly the following year after the team brought in guard Scotty Brooks to play backup minutes, but it also coincided with a period of unprecedented three-point shooting success for Smith and some unprecedented success for the Houston franchise as a whole.
Over the next three seasons, which also saw rookie guard Sam Cassell join the fray and compete for minutes in 1993, Smith was scorching hot from beyond the arc. He shot 43.8 percent from deep in 1992-1993, leading the league with a 58.5 percent effective field goal percentage as a result.
In 1993-1994, he shot 40.5 percent from three, and in 1994-1995, he shot 43 percent. His scoring, assists, and minutes all began to dip along the same time frame, but the Rockets won their first-ever franchise title following the 1994 season and came back the following year and won a back-to-back in 1995. Smith started 159 of 164 regular season games in the two title years. His touch from long-range was the perfect complement to a redesigned offense centered around Hakeem creating from the post.
He was also clutch, carrying his three-point shot into the playoffs. He shot 50 percent from deep in the 1993 playoffs and followed that up with over 44 percent in each of the two title runs. For his Rockets’ playoff career, he shot 44.8 percent from deep.
In the 1994 run, he had monster games against Phoenix and Utah (he hit six threes in Houston’s Game 1 win over the Jazz in the Western Conference Finals), and though he struggled with the physicality of New York Knicks guard Derek Harper in the NBA Finals, he still was accurate from deep and knocked down some big shots.
In the 1995 playoffs, Smith showed up big again versus Utah and Phoenix, and later set the tone in the NBA Finals against the Orlando Magic by going for 23 points and an at-the time-record seven three-pointers in a come-from-behind victory for the Rockets in Game 1 that eventually led to a sweep.
Smith would play one more season for the Rockets in 1995-1996, where he would gradually lose his starting job to Cassell. Houston released him the following season, where he would then become a journeyman to close out his career, spending time with Detroit, Orlando, and Denver in 1997 before retiring at the season’s end.
Smith finished his six seasons in Houston averaging 12.6 points, 5.5 assists and 1 steal per game. He shot 48 percent from the field, 40.7 percent from deep, and 85.7 percent from the line.
That isn’t the line of an all-time great (though he is in the top 50 of all-time for three-point percentage), or even an all-time franchise great, but he was the starting point guard on two title teams and a key component of the Rockets’ rise in the early to mid-’90s.
The team absolutely doesn’t have two rings without Smith’s contributions, and he was a perfect fit alongside Olajuwon, and for that reason, the trade to acquire him sneaks Smith into the top 10 of our countdown.