The Houston Rockets' magic number (combined Rocket wins and Portland losses) to clinch home court in the first round of the playoffs and lock up the fourth seed (and a likely first round tussle with those Trail Blazers) is two.
So let's start there.
With four games to go in the regular season, and a clinching of the fourth seed in the Western Conference imminent, Daryl Morey and the Rockets can begin the process of getting their ducks in a row. That means being strategic about doling out minutes and granting rest. That means bringing back guys who are currently resting (Dwight Howard, most specifically) at just the right time to shake off the rust before a (hopefully) deep playoff run.
And, unfortunately for center Greg Smith, it means making sure you've got healthy bodies from top to bottom on the roster.
On Thursday, the Rockets cut Smith loose, in large part because he would be unable to return this season from a knee injury that has limited him to just 11 games. The Rockets know firsthand how precarious things can become when there are depth issues at the center spot, with Omer Asik missing most of the first few months of the season with a
mysterious leg injury and possible bruised ego, and with Dwight Howard missing the last couple weeks nursing an ankle.
(Aside: Can you imagine if Morey had gone forward with moving Omer Asik just to placate him as many fans wanted him to do?)
As the door closed on Smith, opportunity knocked for former Texas Longhorn and Terry High School product, Dexter Pittman. Pittman, who came into the league as a second round pick of the Miami Heat and was a member of a Heat title team, signed a contract for the remainder of the season and for a non-guaranteed 2014-15 season.
Pittman had been averaging 11.3 points and 6.8 rebounds for the Austin Toros of the D-League, and was last spotted in the NBA back in March on a 10 day contract with the Atlanta Hawks. Pittman, obviously, will be eligible for the postseason.
Smith was originally signed by the Rockets as a street free agent during the 2011-12 season and went back and forth between Houston and the D-League for most of that season. His most productive time in Houston was easily 2012-13, when he averaged almost 17 minutes a game as Omer Asik's backup.
Rockets general manager Daryl Morey said that letting go of Smith was not an easy decision:
"We were holding on as long as we could. We wanted Greg to come back healthy. We thought that was our best option, but at this point, it looks like he will miss the season. We needed to have someone who could play the five against certain lineups if Dwight or Omer would take an injury. Dexter right now is the best 5 in the D-League, we think."
Smith was predictably classy in his outgoing message on Twitter, and likely has played himself into a role on somebody's roster next season, provided he gets back to full health:
I'm going to miss a great city and the best fans in the world. Thanks for y'all support!!! Htown will be missed
— Gregory Smith (@Ju_Smith4) April 10, 2014
Morey, too, was very dignified in his well wishes for Smith on Twitter....
Very tough to part ways with @Ju_Smith4 - great person & great Rocket - it won't be long before he is helping a team win again
— Daryl Morey (@dmorey) April 10, 2014
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.....and waited the required eight minutes before welcoming his replacement....
Welcome to the Rockets Dexter Pittman! We are loading up on Longhorns @J_Goin_HAM
— Daryl Morey (@dmorey) April 10, 2014
The Rockets are back in action tonight at Minnesota to take on the Timberwolves, before returning home Saturday for a date with the New Orleans Pelicans.