Should Clippers continue pursuing Josh Smith in free agency?


May 17, 2015; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Rockets forward Josh Smith (5) reacts after making a basket during the third quarter against the Los Angeles Clippers in game seven of the second round of the NBA Playoffs at Toyota Center. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

The Los Angeles Clippers have lost DeAndre Jordan to the Dallas Mavericks, and nearly every noteworthy center has already signed elsewhere in free agency. As a result, the Clippers’ options to fill their shallow frontcourt are constantly diminishing. Now, according to Ramona Shelburne of ESPN, L.A. are interested in forward Josh Smith of the Houston Rockets.

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First and foremost, the Clippers need a center. They lost their primary backup Spencer Hawes in the trade with the Charlotte Hornets to acquire Lance Stephenson, and are now left with two primary bigs aside from Blake GriffinGlen Davis and rookie power forward Branden Dawson.

And with the likes of Hedo Turkoglu and Ekpe Udo as their only other potential frontcourt players right now (if they are re-signed), the Clippers need all the help they can get in that department.

Josh Smith is currently an unrestricted free agent, and whilst he is by no means a center, he’s still a very versatile forward (except for the fact he often takes too many threes). During his 55 games with the Houston Rockets this year, Smith spent 88 percent of his playing time at power forward, and the other 12 percent at center. Which, considering that Smith has generally played a combination of the 3 and 4, makes his ability to play multiple positions intriguing. Especially now that the Clippers need to give Blake some help since DeAndre’s departure.

Smith had a terrible stint with the Detroit Pistons for one and a half seasons, and he simply never managed to perform in a situation where he needed to be a star player. He had some great years with the Atlanta Hawks, and was averaging 16.4 points, 8.6 rebounds and 2.9 blocks per game by just his third year in the league in 2006-07, but that never continued in Detroit.

Smith tried to move out to the perimeter and play as a shooting small forward, rather than the interior playing, dunking, rim protecting power forward that he truly is. He averaged just 1.4 threes per game during his tenure with the Hawks, then got trigger happy and averaged 3.1 with the Pistons.

Surprise, surprise, it didn’t go well.

He found greater success by returning to his roots with the Rockets, and both his field goal percentage (43.8), three point percentage (33.0), and point and rebound averages per 36 minutes (16.9 points, 8.4 rebounds) during this season in Houston were higher than he ever averaged in Detroit.

If he could be that kind of player for the Clippers, and emphasize his athleticism and ability around the rim at both ends of the floor, he becomes a very interesting target.

When the Clippers faced off against the Rockets in the second round of the playoffs this year, Josh Smith was instrumental in burying L.A.’s hopes of making the Western Conference Finals. He scored 14 points in the fourth quarter of game six alone, made 4 of his 7 three pointers, and helped lead the Rockets to win the fourth quarter 40-15 and practically end the Clippers’ series. They gained too much momentum from winning two potential close-out games for L.A., and Smith showcased the best of his offensive ability.

Maybe the lasting memory of his heartbreaking fourth quarter is why they’re thinking about bringing him onboard?

If he can continue his improved three point shooting (in very limited amounts, though) and can use his athleticism and strong finishing to full effect in transition with Chris Paul, Josh Smith could have a solid offensive impact with the Clippers. Of course, they already led the league in offensive efficiency with 109.8 points per 100 possessions this year, but Smith should at least be better than Glen Davis.

Big Baby lowered the Clippers’ offensive rating by 18.5 points whenever he was in the game this year. So if Doc Rivers makes sure to limit Smith’s perimeter shooting, it’s safe to say he’ll work out better than Davis. And his play making potential alongside Griffin and Dawson would only add to the team’s immense entertainment value.

May 27, 2015; Oakland, CA, USA; Houston Rockets forward Josh Smith (5) shoots the basketball during the second half in game five of the Western Conference Finals of the NBA Playoffs against the Golden State Warriors at Oracle Arena. The Warriors defeated the Rockets 104-90 to advance to the NBA Finals. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

In addition to some average (albeit too frequent) floor spacing, Josh Smith’s real value to the Clippers would come through his rebounding and defense. He may not have looked like the ferocious rim protector he was with the Hawks recently, but that part of Smith’s game hasn’t just disappeared. And for a Clippers team who only ranked 15th in defensive efficiency and 16th in rebounding rate, who also just lost their anchor in DeAndre Jordan, they could use someone with Smith’s versatility.

With the Rockets this year, Smith averaged 8.4 rebounds per 36 minutes, including 2.6 offensive boards. Not many players who are 6’9″ can attack the glass for second chance points like Smith, and in comparison to Davis (who averaged just 1.7 offensive rebounds per 36 minutes) he’d be a definite upgrade.

Doc Rivers would need to encourage Smith to work in the paint rather than try and become a three point shooter, but he could provide a real athletic burst off the bench. Not just for rebounding, transition dunks and his strong 66.9 percent finishing inside three feet, but for his defense.

Smith averaged 1.3 steals and 1.7 blocks per 36 minutes with the Rockets, and with his speed and 7’0″ wing span he can keep up with guards and hold off big men in the post.

Oh, and his 39 inch vertical always helps, too.

In addition to being able to play at the perimeter, he also held opponents to only 46.2 percent shooting at the rim this year. Which, in contrast to Davis, who allowed opponents to shoot 50 percent, Smith would be a fair upgrade. And seeing as Big Baby is also far too slow to cover guards away from the basket, Smith would be a defensive improvement in multiple ways.

May 17, 2015; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Rockets forward Josh Smith (5) scores a basket during the first quarter against the Los Angeles Clippers in game seven of the second round of the NBA Playoffs at Toyota Center. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Similarly to Branden Dawson — a player who can rebound, protect the rim, guard multiple positions and cause havoc in transition — Josh Smith could form a duo with him to give the Clippers a significant defensive punch off the bench. He’s by no means a great mid range shooter, but his 38.5 percent shooting from 10-16, compared to Davis’ 21.4, would give the Clippers improved floor spacing if they need to adopt a small-ball playing style with Jordan’s departure.

Smith’s strengths aside, though, it would still be ideal if L.A. could sign a center instead. Their options are limited, and targets such as Amar’e Stoudemire or Ryan Hollins are clear downgrades if they start alongside Griffin. Yet the Clippers don’t have a lot choice.

With a limited amount of cap space and no mini-mid level exception since signing Paul Pierce, the Clippers are mainly limited to offering veterans minimum contracts and little else.

Josh Smith would be an improvement over Glen Davis, and if Doc Rivers had more money available to improve his bench he’d be worth signing. His versatility and athleticism could really benefit the Clippers. But right now they can’t afford that luxury of an extra big man to have at their disposal. Of course Stoudemire isn’t the most attractive option, but unless the Clippers limit themselves to a small-ball lineup and demand heavy minutes from Griffin at the 5, they need a new center.

If they aren’t able to sign anyone, maybe Josh Smith is a better target over someone such as Carlos Boozer. However, until no centers on their radar are available, the Clippers signing Smith should only be plan-B. He’d be a welcome addition to add depth, but since drafting Branden Dawson, L.A. already has a new explosive, defensive forward. And now they’ve lost Jordan, the Clippers need size and a genuine center far more than a player such as Smith.

Which is why their money needs to be used on essential players rather than luxuries.

Next: Clippers, Cavaliers discussing a trade involving Jamal Crawford