When the Houston Rockets showed a keen interest in signing Josh Smith, it made for quite a Christmas present.
Smith had been waived by the Detroit Pistons, and the Rockets signed him days later, on Christmas Eve. For Smith, a power forward with small forward-type skills, it meant a chance to play with center Dwight Howard, his close childhood friend and with whom he’d played on AAU basketball teams in their native Atlanta.
“I’ve been knowing him since preschool, and that’s an accurate statement,” Smith said after Friday’s shoot-around practice at Smoothie King Center, where the Rockets were preparing to play the New Orleans Pelicans.
“I played a lot in the summertime with him, and basically growing up with him, I think it’s a fun time that we can be able to play with each other at this level and stage in our life.
“I like playing with all of these guys. It’s a very exciting time for me in my career, and I feel very blessed and fortunate.”
Smith, 29, had signed a four-year, $54 million contract with Detroit in July 2013. He was expected to rev up the Pistons’ fast break with his athleticism and skills.
Detroit already had big men Greg Monroe, a New Orleans native, and Andre Drummond, a formidable duo in the low post and in rebounding. Stan Van Gundy, however, took over as president and head coach of the Pistons for this season. Although Smith had career averages of 15.4 points and 7.8 rebounds, it was not a good fit.
Smith loathed Van Gundy’s style of play. Van Gundy disliked Smith’s troubles finishing in the lane and habit of attempting 3-pointers, although he is a career 27.8 percent shooter from long distance, mostly during nine seasons with the Atlanta Hawks.
However, with power forwards such as the Pelicans’ Anthony Davis, the Los Angeles Clippers’ Blake Griffin, the Portland Trail Blazers’ LaMarcus Aldridge, the Dallas Mavericks’ Dirk Nowitzki and the Oklahoma City Thunder’s Serge Ibaka in the Western Conference, the Rockets felt they could use help at the position. And, Smith came at the low price of a $2.1 million bi-annual exception for this season.
Rockets power forward Terrence Jones, who played at Kentucky with Davis, has been out with a leg nerve ailment, and Houston’s other power forward, Donatas Motiejunas, is more of a traditional type and does not defend well outside of the low post.
“Josh can help us a lot,” Rockets coach Kevin McHale said. “His defense is something we can use. He can switch stuff, he can guard smaller guys. He can guard guys that go on the perimeter.
“He gives you more versatility. I think he’s got some of that same versatility that Terrence used to have when we were very comfortable switching Terrence on different matchups.”
However, it is mostly his fit on offense with Houston that has Smith excited. Howard, a very athletic and mobile center is a good offensive rebounder. Smith also gets to play with All-Star James Harden, a combo guard who shoots well with range and is perhaps the best in the league at driving to the basket.
While Detroit’s two good big men basically require a half-court game, Smith likes the Rockets’ more lithe players, who can get up and down the court quickly and make 3-pointers.
“The transitional game that they play, getting up and down the court, I think that it suits me and what I like as far as playing basketball,” Smith said.
Smith’s offensive game appears to some to be somewhat of a broken model. But with Houston’s arsenal of 3-point shooters, McHale sees a lot of possibilities for Smith that tweaking his game could bring out.
“I’d like to see him play-make,” McHale said. “He’s got to get comfortable first, get him playing faster with the ball, driving, kicking, picking, rolling hard.
“I just want him to play faster, and using his play-making, just let his eyes play. When you’re playing good basketball, you truly turn off your brain and turn on your eyes. Your eyes dictate everything you do.”
The Pistons were 5-23 when Van Gundy decided he could no longer wanted Smith. With the approval of Pistons owner Tom Gore, Van Gundy bought out Smith in just the second season of his contract.
The Mavericks, Trail Blazers, Clippers and Lakers also courted Smith. However, he’d had conversations with Howard on the culture of the Rockets, and that, as much what he knew was happening on the court, also told him it was the fit he wanted.
“I like how (the Rockets) come together as a team,” Smith said. “I like the ability that we’re able to police each other without the coaches really having to say anything.”
Pelicans small forward-shooting guard John Salmons was at shoot-around Friday morning after having left the team Tuesday for what the Pelicans said were “personal reasons.” Coach Monty Williams said then he didn’t expect Salmons back anytime soon, citing a fairly serious family matter. However, Salmons said Friday: “Things got better.” He said he didn’t want to disclose anything more. … Shooting guard Eric Gordon reiterated Friday that he expects to return to practice Sunday. Gordon has not practiced since his left labrum was torn during a game at the Utah Jazz on Nov. 22.