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Taking a Look At Joe Smith

A Daily Babble Production

We have yet to hit the turn of the calendar, but the "Who, if anyone, will Danny add to the Celtics' bench?" rumor mill is in midseason form and has been for some time now.

We watched wistfully as Antonio McDyess returned to Detroit, but mumblings of possible arrivals from currently pseudo-retired P.J. Brown or Dikembe Mutombo continue. Celts fans won't soon forget what Brown brought to this team a season ago, and the timeless Deke's ability to be a defensive presence in limited minutes remains renowned around the league.

There is also a third name in the mix these days as a potential acquisition via trade or free agency after a possible buyout: Joe Smith. The 14-year vet is playing with his ninth team, but the veteran may not be staying in Oklahoma City much longer. Word around is that the Thunder may deal Smith or simply buy him out of his $4.8 million expiring contract.

In either scenario, he is no doubt worth a close look for the Celts.

Smith offers a somewhat different package from Brown and Mutombo. Relatively speaking, he is the baby of the trio. Next to the 39-and-41-year-olds, Smith is practically drinking from the fountain of youth at age 33. Unlike the other two, Smith has been playing full seasons at 20 minutes per game. Brown gave the Celtics a bit less than 15 in last year's playoffs. Mutombo hasn't averaged more than 17.2 minutes per game over the last four seasons in Houston, and the Rockets have kept his appearances down in order to get him fresh for the playoffs. A season ago, he logged 20 minutes per game in the playoffs and was productive in those minutes. This isn't necessarily a plus or a minus for Smith, just an observation.

Smith is a bigger offensive threat than players such as Brown and Mutombo. The 6-foot-10 forward still has a varied array of moves on the low block and high post. He loves his turnaround fadeaway on the baseline, and he remains an effective jump shooter from the elbows, mid-range wings and inside. He can post and score as well. Smith averaged better than 10 points in just 22 minutes per game over his time with Cleveland and Chicago last season, and he is putting up 6.9 points in 19.9 minutes per in Oklahoma City this year. Smith's field-goal percentage indicates less efficiency than Brown or Mutombo, though that is a function of Mutombo and Brown's tendencies to limit their shots to whatever the defense gives them around the basket. Smith has the wider arsenal, and he has more ability to create his own shot.

On the defensive end, the veteran power forward is good albeit not great. He doesn't possess Mutombo's dominating presence in the lane or Brown's overall defensive ruggedness, but he is a serviceable defender who gets the job done. The Cavs were less than a point worse defensively per 100 possessions with him on the floor than off it last season, and the Bulls were more than three points better. Smith held opposing power forwards to 47.1 percent effective field-goal shooting during his time with Cleveland last year, quite a credible figure. He isn't a lockdown defender or a big-time shot blocker, but he is a smart player who won't get embarrassed by his man or become a liability for his team's defensive rotations. Smith is a capable rebounder, though his per-minute production on the glass has been inferior to that of Brown and Mutombo both over the last couple of seasons and the course of their careers.

Two other issues come into play with regard to Smith and the Celtics, one that favors pursuing him, one that doesn't. An added upside of obtaining Smith would be keeping him away from the Cavs in particular. While acquiring any of the three players mentioned would keep that player from the Cavs, Smith is the one Cleveland is most likely to go after hard. He was productive there last season, and he has expressed an interest in going back there if he is bought out by Oklahoma City. Smith's size caused the Celtics problems defensively last year in the playoffs, particularly after he got past his struggles (a composite 3-for-10) in the series' first two games. Over the last five games of the series, Smith shot 20-for-28 (71.4 percent) from the field and averaged 9.4 points and 5 rebounds in 22.2 minutes. Not shabby at all. Of note here is that given Smith's familiarity with the system and desire to return to Cleveland, the Celtics would probably need to make a trade to get Smith rather than waiting until he becomes a free agent. NBA rules prevent the Cavs from reacquiring Smith via trade, but they would be able to vie for his services if and when he is bought out.

The other concern is that Smith's minutes over the last several seasons have come nearly exclusively at the power forward spot. At 6-foot-10, he no doubt provides a height upgrade over the undersized combo of Leon Powe and the Infuriated Infant, and it wouldn't necessarily be impossible for him to moonlight in the pivot. But given the apparent lack of progress made by Patrick O'Bryant thus far this season and the fact that Smith isn't a dominant defender at his natural position of the four, he seems clearly an inferior option as far as providing help at the five is concerned. The Celts simply might not need another power forward on the roster.

All that in mind, Joe Smith projects at third on my list among the most seriously discussed candidates for the Celtics' bench thus far. P.J. Brown gave this team invaluable work a season ago, knows the system and can defend and rebound at the center position. Dikembe Mutombo is still most likely to return to Houston, but if he's willing to consider Boston, his ability to block, alter and discourage innumerable shots in the middle would be welcomed with open arms. Either of those two seem like more sensible options at this point, but that isn't to write Smith off either. There is no guarantee that Brown is coming back or that Mutombo will stray from Houston when he returns as planned after the holidays, and Joe Smith no doubt can add a solid veteran presence, some offensive firepower and serviceable defensive play. He shouldn't be at the top of the Celts' list, but he does belong on the radar.

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