By Steven Lebron
After a victory in New York two weeks ago, Josh Smith smiled as he answered questions about his former team. The Detroit Pistons had won their first seven games since waiving Smith. Before the move, Detroit was 5-23. They're now 16-26 and just 1.5 games out of eighth place in the Eastern Conference.
"I can't really get mad," Smith said. "I have no hard feelings. I'm excited for them. I text those guys [on the Pistons] every day to let them know how proud I am of them."
After five games in the starting lineup with the Houston Rockets, Smith was moved to the bench. In 15 games with his new team, Smith is averaging 10.3 points, 5.4 rebounds and 2.1 assists. A career 27.6 percent shooter from three, Smith is still averaging two three-pointers per game on the Rockets, making just 20 percent of those attempts. But he's starting to make contributions off the bench. In a 112-101 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder last Thursday, Smith scored 13 points (6-for-10 shooting) in 19 minutes of play and contributed seven rebounds as well. There's a potential he can find a fit with the second unit. In 158 minutes when Smith, Corey Brewer and Jason Terry have been on the floor together, they have a net rating of +9.2.
Head coach Kevin McHale thinks the move to the bench has helped Smith.
"He feels more comfortable," McHale explained, while stopping short of discussing his shot selection ["You'd have to ask him."] "That's the biggest thing. You can't play basketball if you're thinking all the time."
The comfort on the court extends to the locker room, where Smith has been placed next to Dwight Howard. The two have known each other since growing up. They played on the same AAU team. Howard was the best man at Smith's wedding. They're the closest of friends.
Howard said he didn't blow up Smith's phone to convince him to join the Rockets.
"With the West being extremely tough this year, having a guy who can stretch the floor and also play physical inside is something that we needed," Howard said. "I'm happy he's on our team instead of playing against him."
At 29-13, Houston is a half-game behind Memphis for first place in the Southwest Division, tied with Dallas, with San Antonio just 3 1/2 games behind the division leader. The Rockets are fourth in the West, but just five games up on the eighth place Phoenix Suns. The arms race has begun for what is shaping up to be the most competitive eight-team playoff race ever. The Mavericks acquired Rajon Rondo from Boston, the Grizzlies just traded for Jeff Green and it appears the Oklahoma City Thunder -- who aren't even occupying a playoff spot at the moment -- are looking to add to their roster in preparation of a playoff run.
So even though the Rockets play a brand of basketball that reflects the basketball philosophy of their general manager Daryl Morey (with a focus on finding the most efficient shot on the floor, which means eschewing the long jumper for three-pointers and shots around the rim), it was necessary to take a low-risk gamble on someone like Smith.
Advanced analytics have driven Morey's approach to team building, but he's always bet on talent. Despite that, his interest in the best players on the market wasn't always reciprocated. For years, Morey attempted to acquire a top talent via free agency and trade. He repeatedly failed in his efforts to lure a superstar to Houston until he acquired James Harden from the Thunder in a trade prior to the start of the 2012-13 season. The next summer, he convinced Howard to leave more money on the table and spurn the Los Angeles Lakers for Houston.
This past offseason, Morey was positioned to sign Chris Bosh away from the Miami Heat. Instead, Bosh chose to return to Miami on a max-level contract, and Morey had to also decline matching an offer sheet from Dallas for Chandler Parsons. In his maneuvering to create space for Bosh, Morey traded away Omer Asik and Jeremy Lin -- two useful rotation players -- and signed Trevor Ariza to replace Parsons in the starting lineup. There were questions about the team's depth, but even with an extended absence from Howard earlier this season and the continued absence of starting power forward Terrence Jones, the Rockets have emerged as contenders in the West behind Harden's incredible play.
So far this season, Harden is averaging 27.1 points, 5.6 rebounds and 6.7 assists per game. He's getting to the free throw line 8.9 times per game, and making 89.0 percent of those attempts. From the field, Harden is shooting 45.2 percent. He's made 38.1 percent from three. 36 percent of Harden's field goal attempts have come within five feet of the basket, and he's making 56.8 percent of them. He leads the league with 18 30-point games. Thursday's game against his former team put his offensive game on display. He scored 31 points, was efficient from the field (9-for-15) and from three (6-for-8) and got to the free throw line (7-for-9). He also contributed nine rebounds and 10 assists.
Terry is in his 16th year in the league and spent most of his career alongside Dirk Nowitzki in Dallas, where they won a title together. He's seen his share of superstars. But even Terry is impressed by what Harden has accomplished so far this season.
"Oh, no doubt, he's the MVP this season," Terry said. "The way he plays the game is the right way. To me, he's a top three player in this league because he does it every night. There's no drop off. His work ethic is another thing I tell people about. He's always in the gym. Even though he's had success in this league, he's stayed hungry and humble."
Harden received a lot of criticism for his lack of effort on the defensive end last season. At training camp, Harden told Sam Amick of USA TODAY Sports, "It's not a matter of whether I can or can't play defense. It's just a matter of me focusing for 48 minutes throughout a game and making sure that I'm always alert on both ends of the floor … It's up to me to go out there and show my leadership, to show that I can play both ends of the floor at a high level and just do it."
There's still the occasional play where Harden is exposed for his lackadaisical habits, but for the most part, he's made a much more concerted effort on the defensive end. On the season, with Harden on the court, the Rockets are allowing 99.9 points per 100 possessions, compared to 103.1 points per 100 possessions last season with Harden in the lineup.
On Saturday, in a matchup of leading MVP candidates, Steph Curry (27 points, seven rebounds, 11 assists, three steals) got the better of Harden (12 points, 4-for-15 from the field). The Warriors won, 131-106, in Houston. On Monday night, Harden bounced back with a season-high 45 points against the Indiana Pacers. With their MVP dominating on the offensive end and focused on being more than just a one-way player, the Rockets are hoping to peak come playoff time.
"For us, it's about getting better every day," Terry said. "We have to beat the teams we're supposed to beat. The good teams in this league put together win streaks of eight to ten games, that's what we're striving for."
"We want to make sure we're rolling at the end of the season," Howard added. "We don't want to hit our peak too early."
The Rockets have won just one playoff series since 1997. The reality of the Western Conference is that four really good teams will be eliminated in the first round. The difference between winning a series and going home early might be decided by one superb performance from your best player in the series. The Rockets know that more than anyone.
In a first round matchup with the Portland Trail Blazers last year, LaMarcus Aldridge scored 46 points in a Game 1 victory and followed that up with 43 points in Game 2. The Blazers went up 2-0, and just as the Rockets looked primed to force a Game 7 at home, Damian Lillard hit a game-winning three to clinch the series in six games. The season may come down to the slimmest of margins once again in this year's playoffs. The Rockets will count on their most valuable player to make sure they're on the right side of the coin flip if it comes down to that again.
Steven Lebron is a contributing writer for Sports on Earth. He has published work for Grantland, The Classical, VICE Sports, GQ, Rolling Stone and various other publications. You can follow him on Twitter @steven_lebron.