NEW YORK -- Few tanks, much less tree branches, are sturdier than the limb I’m about to go out on.
The results are undeniable. Detroit has gone 7-0 since outright releasing the talented but tumultuous big man. The Pistons lead the NBA in net rating (17.2) over their last seven games, rank No. 2 in defensive efficiency (94.3) and No. 3 in offensive efficiency (111.5). Brandon Jennings has been liberated. Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe have room to operate. They’ve knocked off the likes of the Mavericks, the reigning champion Spurs and the Cavaliers (with LeBron James). The Pistons’ latest victory prompted Dallas head coach Rick Carlisle to declare them “one of the best basketball teams in the NBA.”
Let that sink in for a second. One of the best basketball teams in the NBA.
This is a team that was 5-23 before it released Smith. The Pistons have since won more games in the last 14 days than they had in the previous 58. Detroit is now all of three games out of a playoff spot in the East, a ridiculously ripe position for a team that likely spent Christmas wishing its season would come to a merciful end.
This isn’t a case of “mixing things up” and manufacturing some success. Stan Van Gundy’s decision to waive Smith was as drastic as they come. Cutting a guy with two years left on his contract -- much less the highest-paid player on the team -- just doesn’t happen in the NBA. This is guaranteed money. The only benefit the Pistons had for releasing Smith was getting him the hell out of Detroit. No cap space, no players in return, no draft picks, nada. Just addition by subtraction.
Smith’s arrival in Houston hasn’t been nearly as world-altering as his departure from Detroit. After beating the hapless Knicks 120-96 on Thursday, the Rockets improved to 5-4 since signing Smith and reuniting him with former AAU teammate Dwight Howard.
At times, Smith has been beneficial. Other times, detrimental. He was removed from the starting lineup after just five games, but he’s been modestly effective off the bench. Against the Knicks, he was a non-factor, scoring two points in 19 minutes while collecting two blocks, five rebounds and three turnovers along the way. The flashes of brilliance have been there over the last nine games. The consistent play has not.
Nor are there signs of Smith drastically altering his game. His field-goal percentage has gone up (39.1 percent to 44.6), but so too have his three-point attempts and turnover rate. He took 21 shots in his Rockets debut and has induced plenty of groans since then. But he’s also had convincing performances, like his efficient 16-point performance (7 of 10 shooting) against the Cavaliers, that make you believe this can work. That Smith and Howard can rekindle their success. That Smith can be the power forward the Rockets have been desperately missing.
What’s still impossible to believe is what’s going on in Detroit. While Smith’s slow acclimation to the Rockets is easily understood, the sudden impact his absence has had on the Pistons is downright baffling. This takes Bill Simmons’ “Ewing Theory” to astronomical heights. Have we ever seen a team respond so positively from the departure of a single player?
It’s a question Rockets coach Kevin McHale struggled to answer before Thursday’s game against the Knicks.
“No [I haven’t],” McHale told reporters. “I’ve seen teams make trades and add people and that stuff, but every team is so different. I’ve said for a lot of years now, every team is just very fragile. Fragile in both ways. Teams are fragily good, it doesn’t take much and they go down. But some teams are just bad and something happens and they just start playing better. It’s weird. I don’t know what it is, but it’s been like that for awhile. The fragility of the guys and the teams and the collection of players. Chemistry is really hard to come by.”
Houston was able to add Smith to its collection of players -- which went 20-6 without him -- without giving anything up, signing him to a one-year, $2 million deal after he cleared waivers. To say the move was risk-free though, would be far from the truth. Just as McHale said, NBA teams are very fragile and introducing the wrong player (or personality) can be a debilitating experiment.
Don’t believe me? Ask the 2013-14 Pacers. The additions of Andrew Bynum and Evan Turner proved fatal. Indy essentially gave up nothing for the two players, looking to add the final pieces to a contender, much like Houston. But the result was more disastrous than ever imaginable, throwing off the Pacers’ chemistry and competency. The two were a bad locker room fit and Turner (Bynum played just two games) was even worse on the hardwood. The additions derailed a team that seemed destined for the Finals, instead leading to a conference finals exit.
There are plenty of reasons to think Smith won’t be as destructive for Houston. For one, the ex-Piston is a lifelong friend of Howard’s, meaning a clash among the team’s stars is unlikely. He also seems comfortable and content in a reserve role, a credit to the 10-year veteran and a strike against anyone who believes Smith’s ego will be an issue.
“He feels more comfortable with that and that’s the biggest thing,” McHale said. “He’s just new and we’ve had a hectic schedule and not a lot of practice time. … The biggest thing is just trying to get him comfortable. You can’t play basketball if you’re uncomfortable and thinking and funky. He’s a lot more comfortable with that second team and that’s fine with me.”
Then there’s the humility that comes with watching your former team become literally unbeatable since your departure. You think Smith’s release was a wake-up call? Imagine what this must feel like. Detroit has been rejuvenated just because Smith isn’t there anymore. It’s being proven on a nightly basis that Smith was a road block to victory for the Pistons. That’s not a reputation you want to carry to your next team, much less the rest of your career.
It’s almost certain the Pistons won’t be able to keep up their recent pace. If they do, the Rockets should really consider releasing Smith before the playoffs in hopes of a similar boost.
But what will happen with the Rockets?
Whether the Pistons make the playoffs or not is an unlikely conversation to dominate NBA circles in weeks to come. But Smith’s impact on the Rockets will be examined with intense scrutiny. With every loss will come questions about Smith’s effect on the team. Will he once again fall in love with his jumper? Will he continue to make the same mistakes? Will he stunt the Rockets’ growth much like he did the Pistons?
It’s impossible to judge Smith just nine games into his Rockets tenure. And as McHale said Thursday, it’s unfair to assume Smith will be exactly the same player he was in Detroit.
“I can only judge people by my experiences with them,” McHale said. “And he’s been fantastic.”
Will McHale be rewarded by embracing Smith? Will the power forward ditch his small-forward ways and pan out in Houston? Will the addition of Smith prove to be the best thing that could have happened to the Rockets?
That’s a limb I’m not willing to go out on just yet.