Lakers Report Card: Joe Smith
Everywhere he went, Lakers forward Joe Smith wore a smile on his face.
He smiled when he shook hands with the Laker starters during introductions. He smiled as he wore his headphones in the locker room, shaking his head to various rap songs. And he smiled anytime he interacted with a teammate, team official or reporter.
But a cheerful expression was about all the Lakers got out of Smith, whom they acquired Dec. 15, 2010, from New Jersey for Sasha Vujacic and a 2011 first-round draft pick. All accounts say he practiced hard. He didn't drastically mess up in the 3.7 minutes per game that he averaged. And the 15-year veteran brought the right attitude, getting along with everyone and providing positive energy.
But that won't make a big difference in his grade. What struck me about Smith was that he seemed perfectly content with his lot -- a 1995 NBA Draft pick who became a moving part in the league, holding the NBA record for most franchises played for (12): the Golden State Warriors (1995-98), Philadelphia 76ers (1998), Minnesota Timberwolves (1999-2000), Detroit Pistons (2000-01), Timberwolves again (2001-03), Milwaukee Bucks (2003-06), Denver Nuggets (2006), Chicago Bulls (2007-08), Oklahoma City Thunder (2008-09), Cleveland Cavaliers (2008-09), Atlanta Hawks (2009-10) and New Jersey Nets (2010). Likewise, the Lakers appeared in no rush to get him acclimated with the triangle offense and to be able to eat up serious minutes so that Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum could rest.
From a practical standpoint, the Lakers whiffed on trading Vujacic and the team's first-round pick. The team could've used Vujacic's intensity in practice and ability to be an irritant at defense since the team didn't have much of an edge all season. The Lakers could surely use that first-round pick to bolster their roster following a disappointing playoff finish in a four-game sweep to the Dallas Mavericks in the Western Conference semifinals. At the time, I lauded the move -- I thought the Lakers would make better use of Smith to help handle their dwindling frontline depth, and also I believed Vujacic had become irritating to many in the Lakers organization.
There's no denying the Lakers' main motivation in acquiring Smith. The trade, in which the Nets also sent Terrence Williams to Houston, allowed the Lakers to save money. Vujacic was making $5.5 million in the last season of a three-year, $15-million contract he signed in 2008 with the Lakers; Smith's salary was $1.4 million this season. But for all the bemoaning regarding Pau Gasol's increased fatigue level during Andrew Bynum's rehab, the Lakers surely had an opportunity to develop Smith so he could help offset that problem.
It seems that Smith arrived too late. Bynum already had returned to the lineup, diminishing any urgency about getting Theo Ratliff to full health or worries about shelling out an extra $70,000 a week to get a backup center or fears that rookie forward Derrick Caracter would prove unreliable. But it's not as if those issues suddenly evaporated. Gasol still felt a residual effect from the increased minutes he played during Bynum's absence, Ratliff missed nearly the rest of the season, and Caracter didn't take the proper steps to fully prepare for opportunities.
The problem points both to the Lakers and Smith. He acknowledged that Lakers Coach Phil Jackson never outlined any vision for what his role would entail, and Smith appeared nonchalant in trying to find out. As much as he gave a good effort in practice and brought a positive attitude, Smith didn't sound too concerned with his learning curve with the triangle. As much as the Lakers liked his positive vibes, Jackson never expressed much urgency in him needing to fit in with the team as quickly as possible.
The Lakers could've gotten away with this gamble had they fixed their more egregious problems, such as the team's inconsistent focus and effort, Gasol's playoff disappearance, Kobe Bryant's late-game unreliability, shooting inconsistency from Ron Artest and Derek Fisher as well as a deteriorating bench. But both the longheld attitude from the organization and Smith in remaining satisfied in skating by proved one example of a much larger picture in trying to cut corners into reaching a championship.
-- Mark Medina
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Top photo: Laker Joe Smith blocks a shot by Hawks center Zaza Pachulia in February. Credit: Alex Gallardo / Associated Press
Bottom photo: Smith pulls up for a jumper over Detroit’s Jason Maxiell in January. Credit: Gary A. Vasquez / US Presswire