Ten years ago, if you had told Josh Smith and Dwight Howard they would wind up on the same NBA team, they probably would have figured they would win a title. They would have no reason not to. They had spent the last few summers playing together on the Atlanta Celtics, one of the greatest teams in the history of AAU basketball. Smith and Howard were about as big and athletic as they are now - they could score at will on the average high school player.
Along with Randolph Morris, another 7’0 who wound up having a cup of coffee in the NBA, the two spent most of their teenage years traveling around the country dunking at will on people. You can forget about spacing issues when you have Dwight Howard and Josh Smith running the break and hitting the offensive glass against teenagers. They won most of their games in warm-ups, when the other team would start marveling at the 6’10 and 6’9 guys doing windmills. There was never much question about what Smith and Howard would do after high school - the money was already waiting for them.
In their first decade in the NBA, Howard and Smith combined to make over $200 million and they have a lot more money coming to them in the next few seasons. The two childhood friends - Howard was the best man at Smith’s wedding - have been wildly successful, making enough money to support their families for generations to come. There are no guarantees in this world, even for teenage superstars. Morris, the other near 7’0 in the Celtics trio, played a few seasons in the NBA, but he was unable to stick in the league. Javaris Crittenton, their 6’5 PG, is on trial for murder.
In and of itself, making it 10 years in the league is a blessing, if for no other reason than the health-related luck that involves. Smith and Howard have both been very productive and very durable, rarely missing extended periods of time, which is somewhat unusual for such high-flying players. Since they came into the league at such a young age, they have been able to rack up huge individual numbers - over 26,000 combined points, 16,000 rebounds and 3,000 blocks.
They have made all the money and put up all the numbers and lived their 20’s to the absolute fullest, which only makes being paired up against at 29 all so fascinating. For guys like Howard and Smith, the only thing left to do is to win. And for all their talent, there’s a large percentage of NBA fans who don’t think they will be able to do it - they have been two of the most reviled players in the league over the last few years. There’s no duo in the NBA who can play the “No One Believed In Us” card with more justification than Dwight Howard and Josh Smith.
If everything had gone according to plan, neither would have been on the Houston Rockets. Dwight was supposed to be the next great center for the Los Angeles Lakers and one of the faces of the NBA. Smith was supposed to be a franchise cornerstone for the Detroit Pistons, leading their young front-line into the playoffs as part of a revived Bad Boys team. Instead, Smith is joining his old AAU teammate at the lowest point of his NBA career, after being cut by the Pistons in an almost unprecedented move for a guy at his age and on his salary.
The good news for Howard and Smith is they couldn’t be in a better position in Houston. With Smith in the fold, the Rockets have arguably the best starting five in the NBA. They have an elite defensive PG, an MVP candidate at SG and an elite defensive SF and all three can shoot 3’s. They have three elite 6’8+ athletes upfront who can defend their position, hit the glass, run the break and catch and finish on the move. The only real concern is whether Smith can restrain himself from hoisting 3’s in Houston’s wide-open system, something he should be able to avoid given all the extra space he will be playing in.
The Rockets, for all the concerns people had about their window closing coming into the season, are looking good. The recent acquisitions of Smith, Corey Brewer and Alexey Shved dramatically improves their depth to the point where one of the thinnest teams in the league may have to start worrying about a numbers crunch of quality players. When Terrence Jones comes back, there will be a real crunch for minutes between him, Donatas Motiejunas and Kostas Papanikalou on the second unit.
While that leaves some interesting roster management questions for the Rockets down the road, it means they should be able to overwhelm teams this season. With Howard, Smith, Jones and Motiejunas all getting minutes, all of whom are capable of playing next to each other, Houston can attack other teams for 48 minutes at a blistering pace. Howard and Smith aren’t quite the thoroughbreds they were when they were Jones’ age, but they can still be exhilarating in the open court.
Where Smith could really improve the Rockets over their younger PF’s is on the defensive side of the floor. That’s what really Houston in the first-round last season - LaMarcus Aldridge toasting Jones so bad they had to start Omer Asik at the 4. For as much talent as Jones and Motiejunas have, they are still young offensive-minded guys who struggle against the best of the best at their position, guys like Aldridge, Blake Griffin, Dirk Nowitzki and Zach Randolph. To win three playoff series in the West, the Rockets might need to go through three All-Star PF’s.
Smith is another body they can throw at guys like LMA and Blake. His perimeter defense as a SF in Detroit was miserable, but he’s still young enough and he has played in the league long enough that you expect a guy with his physical ability will be able to buckle down and play solid defense as a PF in a seven-game series. As a 29-year old whose been in the league 10 years, he is in that sweet spot where the mental and physical escalators intersect. Smith isn’t the player he was in his prime, but a big man with his size and skill should be able to drag out the decline stage of his career indefinitely.
Maybe the most interesting part of Smith and Howard teaming up is when it happened. Like so many other things in life, it comes down to timing. If they had teamed up in their early 20’s, they might have fought over minutes and touches and their general immaturity might have broken them apart. That’s what happened to Chris Webber and Juwan Howard on the Washington Bullets. Both Howard and Smith are in the Webber in Sacramento stage in their careers.
You don’t even have to go that far into the past to find a comparable duo. When Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph teamed up in Memphis, there wasn’t much excitement about what they could do together. Z-Bo was at the very end of his NBA rope, having been traded three times in the last two seasons. Gasol was an underachiever, the fat little brother who didn’t have the athleticism to be a great NBA player. There were concerns about their spacing and they were pretty much written off by most of the league. When two skilled and talented big men develop a chemistry together, that thing can roll downhill for years and they can become better than the sum of their parts.
Marc Gasol is 30 and in his 7th season in the NBA and Zach Randolph is 33 and in his 16th season in the league. Dwight and Josh are 29 and in their 11th seasons in the league. For the first time since the Lakers broke up, there’s a frontcourt in the West that is just as big and just as talented as the Grizzlies and can’t be pushed around by their bully ball style. The difference is they have James Harden on the perimeter. You may not like the way the Rockets play or the personalities of their stars or the philosophy of their GM, but they are a serious team that, barring injury, will be fighting for an NBA championship for the indefinite future.
Someone call Randolph Morris because the Atlanta Celtics ride again.