Why Greg Smith in the starting lineup is a good thing

If only one positive development could be extracted from the 2013 Houston Rockets, a successful implementation of distinguished, zestful offensive personality would be it.

The Rockets spend every game racing up the court, spreading the floor with three-point shooters, and running pick-and-roll after pick-and-roll until the defense crumbles like stale corn bread. In numerous ways their roster is prototypical much more so than traditional. They have a star off guard, a point guard whose greatest strength is getting to the basket, a beefy center with limited offensive skills but exceptional defensive acumen, and eight or nine guys who routinely shoot and make three-pointers.

All this makes their decision to place Greg Smith—a 6’10” back to the basket man-eater—in the starting lineup last week a little puzzling, to say the least. With the league transitioning towards something smaller and quicker—with more versatile players in the front-court—lineups that feature two low-post centers at the same time are becoming primitive. (Only a few teams utilize this type of combination often, and with moderate success when all parties are healthy: the San Antonio Spurs, Memphis Grizzlies, Detroit Pistons, Washington Wizards, and Los Angeles Lakers—all those teams possess at least one big man who can really pass.)

But is Houston’s decision to replace an average three-point shooting big man (Donatas Motiejunas) with an average post-up threat “wrong?” Not really. More “interesting” than anything, and it might end up proving beneficial for Houston on both ends of the court.

When Smith and Omer Asik share the court on defense, the Rockets position themselves to always have at least one shot-blocking presence protecting the rim. On his own, Smith isn’t nearly as impressive a defender as Asik, but pairing the two allows for one to guard the pick-and-roll, while the other sits as a backline defender.

They’ve only shared the court for 94 minutes this season, but in that time the Rockets allow 91.7 points per 100 possessions, giving them a defense that would stand as the NBA’s best by a wide margin.

Here’s a shot chart illustrating how effective the duo’s been (once again, in very limited time):

That makes sense, right? They’re two big guys (one a Defensive Player of the Year candidate) with quick feet, and having them defend the paint can pose major problems for an offense not looking to strictly shoot long-twos and three-pointers. When Houston’s on offense is where question marks are created; theoretically it poses problems, considering the Rockets crave spacing to run all their spread pick-and-rolls.

But look at it like this: whenever a shot goes up, and Smith and Asik are roaming beneath the rim like two starving goldfish waiting to be fed, they must be accounted for. And that means defensive players won’t be wandering too far to help for fear of giving up an offensive rebound. (Smith stretches the floor the best he can, mostly roaming the baseline when he isn’t up top setting a screen.)

What’s also nice is having two monstrous rebounders who treat the paint like cliquey high-school girls being possessive over their favorite cafeteria table.

(When Asik and Smith share the floor the Rockets grab 31.6% of their own misses and 57.1% of all the total rebounds available.)

If the defense is entirely focused on stopping Houston’s pick-and-roll attack, well, not too many teams have power forwards who can match up with Smith’s bulk; this is where he gives the team more options than they’d normally have without him. Instead of attacking with high screens and side pick-and-rolls, the Rockets are able to throw it down low into Smith and let him bully his way towards a reasonably efficient shot attempt in situations where they can afford to slow down the game’s pace. The Asik/Smith units are scoring 114.8 points per 100 possessions so far.

(According to Synergy, Smith is basketball’s fifth most efficient player, and he shoots 46.2% in post-up situations. Here’s his predictable heat map, courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com.)

Having Smith in the post is also helpful because help defenders tend to descend down on him as he’s backing his way towards the basket, opening up open looks for the likes of Carlos Delfino, Chandler Parsons, or any of the other half a dozen players on Houston’s roster capable of knocking down a shot.

Smith can also be used to set lethal flair screens, giving Houston’s shooters open looks while Asik has the option of setting a pick on the ball.

And when Smith runs up the middle of the court in transition it sucks in defenders towards the paint and opens up the three-point line. It also allows Asik to trail plays as a backline defender in case a quick shot is missed.

Heading into the playoffs it’ll be interesting to see if having an extra big man will hinder Houston’s rapid fire style, or make their already potent attack even more dangerous.

Also, as a possible small bonus coming out of this whole situation, having Motiejunas come off the bench allows him to face opposing second units; a definite positive seeing that he’s a rookie who was thrown into the middle of a tight playoff chase. (For those scoring at home, that’s matching up with Ryan Hollins or Lamar Odom instead of Blake Griffin or DeAndre Jordan, should the Rockets meet the Clippers in a first round series—a world of a difference.)

Having Smith on the floor at the same time as Asik is an experiment that, so far, has been successful. Don’t be surprised if it stays that way.

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The Daily Blast – April 5, 2013