Josh Smith, through good and bad, will be a difference-maker in Houston
As a basic function of his game, Josh Smith tends to create a division of opinion. Some see Smith for the near-All-Star he was in Atlanta – a jumble of strange skills backed by athletic punch. Others see him for the mess he was in Detroit, where those same skills were swallowed up by a context of poor spacing and worse chemistry. This was apparent even in the reporting of Smith's free agency. Some teams were correctly reported as being both interested and disinterested in Smith, as the answer could vary significantly between members of the same front office.
In truth, Houston – in signing Smith out of his impromptu free agency – is getting both of the above iterations. Smith has never been so easily distilled into pure positives and pure negatives; Smith can't help but lean on his worst instincts at times, even in those cases where his overall presence proves positive. There is no means of splitting the difference.
The Rockets understand what they're getting into with Smith, as every team in the league must, after watching him brick away jumpers as a Piston. His fling as a small forward appears to be over. Rockets coach Kevin McHale didn't play Smith a single minute on the wing in his first two games in uniform, a promising sign for both Smith's redemption and Houston's collective sanity. That so much in Houston runs through James Harden and Dwight Howard also positions Smith to play to his supporting strengths. On talent alone Smith can fill gaps for the Rockets: a heady pass, a timely block, a needed cut.
It's for that reason that picking up Smith will inevitably translate as a net positive. Houston, for all its talent, is decidedly light on players who can both contribute defensively and make things happen on offense. The latter can get dicey at times in Smith's case, though his passing and driving as a big man offer the Rockets avenues they didn't have before. It's not as if Donatas Motiejunas was going to run a pick-and-roll with Dwight Howard to put the opposing defense into a scramble. Yet there were Smith and Howard in their first NBA games together, pulling two big defenders away from the rim on several occasions to challenge an unnatural rotation.
Similarly, Smith has a wider defensive range than Motiejunas or (when healthy) Terrence Jones, bolstering the interior of what was already an elite defense. Only the Warriors have allowed fewer points per possession this season than the Rockets. Smith should help hold that ranking, though in time Houston should also be able to make a run at Golden State for the top spot behind his growing familiarity. Clearly Smith isn't cut out to be a foundational defender, least of all when pulled out of position and away from the rim. When in the right role with the right support, however, Smith's defense can be constructive enough to improve even on such high-level play.
Houston appears a good a spot as any for Smith to reassert that fact, and he did so for stretches in his very first game as a Rocket. He's not protecting the rim just yet (Smith hasn't blocked any shots in his two games since signing), but Smith lingers in a driving lane long enough to create some doubt on the part of a ball handler. He can handle a temporary mismatch against an opposing center without ceding too much ground. He moves quickly in contest and recover, even without a feel for Houston's particular timing. That ability to walk off the plane, through his physical, and onto the court to make helpful plays is huge. It will buy Smith time in what must be a longer process of integration on both sides of the ball, earning more patience with every winning possession.
• MORE NBA: NBA's best Christmas Day sneakers
Of course, Smith's positive contributions can't fully undo his occasional trips into lunacy. Against the Spurs, Smith threw a jump pass in transition that everyone in the building realized was a terrible idea before he did:
You just can't get away from these plays with Smith. He can be reined in on his jump-shooting indulgence or brought into the confines of a more controlled system (which, it should be noted, Houston is not). Somehow, though, Smith will still find a way to travel on what should be an easy score or throw away a seemingly simple pass every now and again. That much is preordained to the point that it may damn well be written in the stars.
Houston is willing to endure those flubbed plays for the tradeoff of what else Smith might bring. Things didn't go well for Smith overall (five points on 1-of-7 shooting and four turnovers) on Sunday, as the Spurs baited him into foul trouble and wandered away from Smith in coverage to crowd the paint. Smart teams will play off of Smith in just this way, challenging equally his willingness to take a kick-out jumper and his chemistry with a brand new set of teammates. The latter is where there's already a projection for improvement; Smith made some good, hard cuts through the Spurs' defense that Houston just wasn't able to respond to in time, and Smith's own attempts to connect with the Rockets' cutters were similarly inopportune.
That will change. There are all kinds of little ways that Smith can make Houston a more dynamic team, and we can expect those facets to manifest over the remainder of this season. In the meantime, Smith will blunder, confound, and clank to poor shooting percentages at times. Yet through all of the above he should still influence the game as a net positive for a Rockets team that's better suited for his game than the Pistons ever were. The beauty of basketball is that Smith, the pariah, is still there – only redressed and reframed into a basketball product altogether more seemly.