When an NBA free agent with the impact of DeAndre Jordan changes his mind and decides to recant on his verbal commitment to the Dallas Mavericks and return to the Los Angeles Clippers, the ripple effects reach beyond just those two teams.
As one of the other contenders in the Western Conference, the Houston Rockets are also inherently affected by Jordan's decision insomuch as the Jordan-less Mavericks are now a likely lottery team, but, more important, because, with Jordan changing his mind, the Clippers go from a rung or two below the Rockets back to, absolute worst case, even with them and likely better.
Those are the more far-reaching, long-arcing effects of Jordan's decision — Dallas gets worse, Clippers remain title contenders. More present day and more poignant, it appears that Jordan's decision (and its subsequent fortifying of the Clippers) has directly effected the Rockets' roster, as free agent forward Josh Smith decided on Thursday to leave the Rockets and sign with the Clippers on a one-year, $1.5 million deal, the veteran's minimum.
Reportedly, in choosing the Clippers over a return to the Rockets, Smith believes he is choosing "winning and a defined role" over money, which is most certainly not something Smith could say with a straight face — the "winning" part, at least — had he chosen to sign with a Jordan-less Clippers.
There is a bit of irony in Smith's signing with the Clippers and his reported reasoning behind the decision. First, Smith actually represented a major turning point in the Rockets' seven-game series win over the Clippers in the playoffs, having been inserted into the starting lineup in Game 5 and having combined with Corey Brewer to score 29 points in the fourth quarter of a 19-point comeback in Game 6.
As for his "defined role" with the Clippers, the Rockets could not have defined Smith's role any better than they did during his 55-game stint with the team. Having been seen as a toxic, undisciplined wing in Detroit (and even, at times, before that in Atlanta), the Rockets and Kevin McHale found a reserve role for Smith that accentuated his versatility, athleticism and ability to knock down open threes. (Stressing the word "OPEN.") In those 55 games, Smith averaged 12 points, six rebounds, 2.6 assists, 1.2 blocks and 0.9 steals with the Rockets, and knocked down 33 percent of his threes.
With very little high-dollar interest from good teams, Smith was able to make his decision based almost solely on his stated criteria of defined role and winning potential. With the Detroit Pistons paying him more than $5 million annually for the next several years as a result of their buyout with him last December, Smith, by rule, would have any salary over the veteran's minimum offset against the $5.4 million annual figure that Detroit owes him.
As for how this signing affects both teams — the Rockets and the Clippers — let's start with the Clippers. Their offseason has gone from near disaster after almost losing Jordan to unbridled enthusiasm with these numerous upgrades. They've swapped out Matt Barnes for Lance Stephenson, and added Paul Pierce and Smith to fortify the bench. That's pretty good.
As for the Rockets, while Smith was a key piece during the second half of the 2014-2015 season, there are plenty of capable bodies in their front court right now — Donatas Motiejunas (returning from injury, contract year), Terrence Jones (contract year), Corey Brewer (re-signed, three-year deal), Trevor Ariza (signed through 2018), Clint Capela, and rookies Sam Dekker and Montrezl Harrell. Big picture, Smith's departure is more of a blow to the Rockets' flexibility to make potential trades than it is a blow to their chances to make another deep playoff run.
One of the underrated winners as a result of Smith's decision could be restricted free agent guard K.J. McDaniels, who the Rockets reportedly would be willing to match for on reasonable offer sheets, but might need to use the mid-level exception to do so. Smith's departure leaves the entire mid-level exception (around $5.4 million annually) to use on McDaniels, if necessary.
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Rockets want to use $5.4 mil MLE on KJ McDaniels are in talks with him. McDaniels has a strong offer from 1 other team. No offer sheet yet.— Calvin Watkins (@calvinwatkins) July 16, 2015
At this point, in a Western Conference where the Warriors are the defending champs, the Spurs signed LaMarcus Aldridge, the Clippers have added pieces, and the Thunder get Kevin Durant back from his foot injury, the Rockets have to hang their hat on a) the returns of Motiejunas and Patrick Beverley making them better than the team that lost to the Warriors in five, and/or b) the possibility of a trade for another piece.
In an offseason where the theme has been "keeping the band together," today Josh Smith decided to break off and move to L.A. to join up with another band.
Listen to Sean Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 from 2 p.m. to 7 p.m. weekdays. Also, follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanTPendergast.