The end of the NBA's regular season doesn't typically offer much in the way of player movement intrigue, but the Rockets made a notable move on Thursday with the release of injured big man Greg Smith. A knee injury and subsequent surgery kept Smith out of the lineup for all but 11 games this season -- an unfortunate turn for both a Houston team at times light on backup bigs and a 23-year-old prospect in the midst of a contract year. Smith climbed into a regular role with the Rockets last season by way of his power finishing and competitive rebounding, though he had nothing more to offer this year as his rehabilitation coincided with Houston's impending playoff run.
On Twitter, Rockets GM Daryl Morey reflected on the move:
Very tough to part ways with @Ju_Smith4 - great person & great Rocket - it won't be long before he is helping a team win again
— Daryl Morey (@dmorey) April 10, 2014
The Rockets' focus, though, is clearly fixed on the matter at hand. They've signed the mammoth Dexter Pittman to fill Smith's vacated roster spot for the sake of postseason depth. In basketball terms, this is an unequivocal downgrade; Pittman's sheer size allows him to be a more viable post player than Smith, but he still isn't as effective around the basket overall, doesn't rebound as well and does little more than take up space defensively. Yet because he is healthy and Smith is not, Pittman can give today's Rockets a bit more security through their playoff run. The need for that security is heightened with Dwight Howard nursing an ankle strain, apparently to such a degree that Houston would waive a perfectly useful player to address it.
Still, it's hard to imagine a scenario in which Pittman really makes a discernible difference for Houston. He's a large body to throw in the way of some opposing big man, though even in Pittman's most favorable matchups it might behoove the Rockets to play smaller and more flexibly as a counter. By signing Pittman the Rockets at least have the option to trot out another conventional center if need be, though the conditions leading to that need would seem to dwarf his potential contributions.
Keeping Smith, on the other hand, might not have served any purpose this season, but it would have allowed Houston to retain his Bird rights -- thereby protecting the Rockets through Smith's restricted free agency. Had Houston gone that route, any formal offer Smith received this summer would have been subject to the Rockets' ability to match its terms. In a sense, Smith could only leave in free agency with Houston's consent -- a privilege that could well have paved the way for his re-signing with the Rockets.
That possibility is all but off the table now that Smith has been released, especially since it is a virtual certainty that Smith will soon be claimed off waivers. The waiver process in the NBA is essentially an agreement to pick up responsibility for a prematurely terminated contract where the previous team left off; the terms of the deal remain unchanged in salary and specifics, which in some cases can make a waiver claim cost-prohibitive. No team jumped at the opportunity, for instance, to pay Glen Davis $6.6 million next season after he was cut loose by the Magic. Smith is a very different case in that he makes only the minimum salary and is a more useful player than most fringe types released around this time of year.
Rarely do we see so useful a big man thrown to the scrap heap. If nothing else, Smith has proven his worth as an NBA rotation player through his work as a catch-and-finish option and an active defender -- the combination of which doesn't often come at such an affordable price. Some other NBA team (likely a losing one, as lesser record determines waiver priority) will recognize that and pick Smith up in short order, if only for the easier track through Smith's upcoming free agency. Houston will be fine in the grand scheme of things -- contending teams aren't undone by moves such as this. This particular contender, though, was forged by wasting no asset. Draft picks were stockpiled and packaged. Second-round picks were signed to multi-year deals with the utmost team flexibility. Outgoing players were swapped for pieces of real, lasting value. It was through a lengthy process of asset maximization that Houston pieced together a trade package for James Harden and created a perfect landing spot for Howard. Why stray from that course to sacrifice a real NBA player for a rental like Pittman?