Josh Smith back to the Rockets: What’s up, Doc?

What did the NBA need on a Friday morning?

A Woj bomb, that’s what, even with a typo:

It’s hardly a shock that the Josh Smith experiment didn’t work out in Los Angeles. If anything is surprising about this move, it’s that Smith is going back to the team he helped lead to the Western Conference Finals last May. It’s true that the Clippers and Rockets probably won’t meet in the playoffs (Houston would realistically need to get the fifth seed and face fourth-seeded L.A. in order for that to happen), but just in case that scenario unfolds, Smith will face an opponent he knows from the inside-out. He’ll also be quite motivated.

Yet, if trading Smith back to the Rockets might not make complete sense for Clipper general manager Doc Rivers, the larger act of getting rid of Smith certainly does.

GM Doc is, of course, the person who also coaches the Clippers. GM Doc was hoping that Coach Doc — with input and assistance from Paul Pierce — could guide Smith and Lance Stephenson (two historically volatile players) and mold then into their best selves. If a fully-engaged Smith and a fully-productive Stephenson ever did materialize, Los Angeles would have developed a lineup which could have existed on the same plane as the Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs (or at least, very close to it).

The problem in theory, when these moves were made over the summer, was that the chances of Smith and Lance morphing into their best selves was always low.

This trade — an act which, from the Clippers’ side, plainly identifies the Smith acquisition as a failed move — puts the truth squarely in front of Doc Rivers, both the GM and the coach: While bringing aboard a wise old owl such as Pierce seemed like a natural move, the attempt to connect to two hard-to-reach players is generally a fool’s errand.

Phrased differently: If the Clippers wanted difference-making role players off the bench to supplement their CP3-Blake-DeAndre-Redick core, they should have gotten players they immediately — and constantly — could have trusted.

Josh Smith never seemed to be one of those players, and his return to Houston proves as much.

Acquiring Josh Smith had its upside and its potential, but the positive possibilities of the move were always overshadowed by the reality that a negative outcome was much more likely. This was the case from the start.

GM Doc wasted a move. Coach Doc and Paul Pierce couldn’t make that move work.

It’s all part of a larger reality in Los Angeles: The Clippers are adrift. Yes, they’ve won a ton of games in recent weeks without Blake Griffin. Yes, they’ve certainly stabilized after a terrible beginning to the campaign. Yet, they’re so far away from reaching their main goals: reaching the Western Conference Finals. Reaching the NBA Finals. Winning the NBA Finals.

If you harbored any doubts about the status of the Clippers in a larger context, you didn’t need to wait for this Josh Smith story to hit the wires on Friday; you just needed to see this team’s loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers on Thursday night.

It’s not that the Clippers lost; without Blake Griffin on the floor, that was always going to be a big ask. However, Smith is a long-armed defender who — for all the bad shots he takes — can be a useful player in terms of limiting quality shot attempts for opponents.

Coach Doc sat Smith against the Cavs, even with Blake still unable to play. Smith logged yet another “DNP-Coach’s Decision,” marking the 10th time in the last 14 Clipper games in which he didn’t play a single minute.

That long-armed defensive presence just might have come in handy.

The Cavaliers — shaken, rattled and rocked by Golden State on Monday night — hit 13 of 23 threes and shot just over 50 percent from the field for the game. Kevin Love scored 18 points and gathered 16 rebounds. It’s almost as though Smith could have taken away Love. It’s almost as though Smith should have been backing up Blake Griffin.

That he wasn’t is a sign that he didn’t blend with the team. Coach Doc failed to make GM Doc look good. He failed to integrate Smith into the Clippers’ rotation. Paul Pierce also failed to offer the kind of guidance Coach Doc was certainly counting on.

The Clippers were smart to deal Smith now, rather than remain stuck with him. However, they need to find a reliable veteran piece before the trade deadline, instead of searching for a high-upside, high-risk player who could become the missing link… but is more likely to be the source of many additional headaches.

The Clippers are still the Clippers: dysfunctional, lost, groping for solutions, not seeming to have the plan which can lift them out of NBA darkness and the unbudging shadows of history.


About Matt Zemek

Matt Zemek is the managing editor of The Student Section, covering college football and basketball with associate editors Terry Johnson and Bart Doan. Mr. Zemek is the editor of Crossover Chronicles, covering the NBA. He is also Bloguin's lead tennis writer, covering the major tournaments. He contributes to other Bloguin sites, such as The AP Party.