Josh Smith finally finds the perfect fit with the Houston Rockets

BOSTON – In the hours after a loss to the Brooklyn Nets, Stan Van Gundy sent Josh Smith a text message: "You haven't done anything wrong, but need you to stop by my office in the morning."

Van Gundy awaited him in the Detroit Pistons' practice facility and soon Smith began to listen to the franchise's president and coach lay out the franchise's predicament with him, the reasons it would've been unfair to bench Smith and limit his minutes, the reasons Van Gundy believed he owed Smith better for how professional he had been in their time together.

For a moment, Smith would wonder: "Where's this going?" and soon the words tumbled out of Van Gundy's mouth: "We're going to waive you, Josh."

With three years and $27 million left on his contract, Smith confesses now: "I was shocked." He knew Detroit had discussed trades, knew that that frontline of Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond was unworkable, but Josh Smith never expected to shake Van Gundy's hand and leave the gymnasium a free agent that morning.

The Rockets' Josh Smith returns to face his former team tonight. (Getty Images)
The Rockets' Josh Smith returns to face his former team tonight. (Getty Images)

His family was incensed and Josh understood it. His family has forever taken the criticism harder than him. Better than everyone else, they know him. They watch and listen to everything about him, the way loved ones do, and his father, Pete, warned Josh: "You're going to get scrutinized … It's going to make you look bad," and with the world barking louder and louder, trashing his character and dismissing his considerable talent, Josh Smith told his father simply: "I don’t care."

In every way, the Pistons' act was liberating. Josh Smith had true free agency now, an ability to choose a team based on fit and comfort and winning, not on salary cap space. He let it go, let it all go. For everyone trying to turn Smith into a punchline, he understood the truth: Contenders would want him, and Smith could play a part for a winner again. It's happening for the Houston Rockets now, Smith fitting so perfectly with his quirky co-stars and coach who's commanded his respect and cooperation.

Smith returns to play the Pistons in Auburn Hills tonight, and he's playing his best basketball in years. The Rockets haven't imploded with Smith. They've thrived with him. The idea of a contract extension this summer appeals to him, because the roster is talented and deep, his role's increasingly defined and most of all: "I'm comfortable here," Smith told Yahoo Sports.

They've accepted everything about Josh Smith, and that means everything to him. He's been a rim protector and a rebounder, a defender and driver. Give us your three-pointers, the Rockets told him. He's making them, too. Now, everything's quieter. The Rockets, and the winning, give him a platform for people to talk about everything he does so well, not his flaws.

People came for Smith in ways that confounded him, the ferocity and vitriol for so-called crimes on basketball that felt like the force of something else, something worse. "You know, I'm not a guy walking around with DUIs on my record, or bar fights," Smith told Yahoo Sports. "I think they expect that out of me. I mean, I understand criticism comes with this, but … I feel sometimes like I did something harmful to somebody’s kid.

"I have thick skin. But when analysts talk, including NBA analysts who played the game, they act like they didn't have any flaws in their game. They played perfect, and no one criticized their game."

Smith is no victim, but there have been few players so harshly judged in recent NBA seasons. For the extensive work Smith had done with "My Sister's House," domestic abuse shelter, and elsewhere in the Atlanta community, the NBA chose Smith as a finalist for its Walter Kennedy Citizenship Award. He's never made much of a deal about his charity work, because he always figured that's what he was supposed to do.

For now, Josh Smith is sitting in the lobby of the Ritz-Carlton in Boston, with his iPad and a box of Peanut Butter Patties that Boston Girl Scout Troop 79258 sold him after practice in Emerson College's student center. He's planning a typical off night on the road: Alone in the movie theatre.

He's never cared much about selling an image, never played into the modern branding game. Perhaps people don't see it, but Smith apologizes for nothing when he declares himself "Old school" for his distaste of the self-serving and self-promoting nature of social media. He has no interest in filling your timeline with news that he's "back on the grind," or shoutouts to half-assed celebrities and jocks with whom he’s supposed to pretend to be friends.

“I don't agree with the world knowing my every move, my every step," Smith said. "I don't need to broadcast it. I grew up in poverty. My parents really had to work hard to put food on the table for my sisters and brothers. I don't see the need to take pictures of me on vacation, or with a new car. Kudos to the people who do it, I guess, but there are so many people who are struggling. It's a slap in the face to them.

"I was the first one to work out with Hakeem Olajuwon. But no one would ever know that, because I didn't post a video of him and me working out. I didn't show people how I was working out with Calvin Murphy in Houston early in my career. There was no need for it."

Josh Smith has found a home with the Houston Rockets. (USA Today Sports)
Josh Smith has found a home with the Houston Rockets. (USA Today Sports)

Eventually, Smith found his way onto the Rockets, too. As a free agent, his preference was to go there in the summer of 2013. General manager Daryl Morey met with Smith and his agents, Brian Dyke and Wallace Prather, in July and tried to mine avenues to sign-and-trades deals, but never did find traction. Detroit had significant salary cap space and made the market's biggest offer. There was no close second to the four years, $54 million offered to him, and Smith signed the deal with the Pistons.

General manager Joe Dumars gambled on Smith's considerable talent, and underestimated the concern most NBA executives and coaches had: How could a frontline of Andre Drummond, Greg Monroe and Smith play together? In the end, the decayed Pistons culture and a flawed structure ate away on Smith a year ago, cutting into his efficiency and hurtling him into some old bad habits of too often shooting the ball deep on the perimeter.

For the first time, Smith had truly left Atlanta, left home. Before choosing to declare for the NBA draft in 2004, Smith had committed to the University of Indiana. He had gotten a sense of the world beyond his hometown with that high school year at Oak Hill Academy in Virginia – and wanted more of it. When everyone else was celebrating the hometown Hawks selecting him out of Oak Hill with the 17th pick, there remained a twinge of disappointment for those next nine seasons. He wanted to get away and live a life beyond his beloved hometown.

"I really didn't want to go home, but that was the hand I was dealt and I made the best out of it," Smith said. "If anybody knows me, I'm an Atlantan. I love the Falcons, I'm a Braves fan, the Georgia Bulldogs. That's my town, that's my city. But when you're young, you're a little like a kid wanting to go away to college. I was going to IU. Even if I did stay in school, I wanted to go to another state, another culture. Last year, in Detroit, was really my first really leaving Atlanta for a long period."

Now, Smith returns to Auburn Hills tonight and it comes with no sentimentality, no real emotion, he says. "I don't have many memories there, much time – not like it was with Atlanta," he says. Everyone wants to pin that Pistons' surge in the aftermath of his release on the addition of subtraction, but here's the thing: Stan Van Gundy never bought it. Never mind Smith – Van Gundy never believed that cutting Smith loose sent the Pistons on that seven-game winning streak. In his mind, they were ready to start winning – and he had been telling those Pistons that every day.

"His thing always: We were a great practice team, and it's going to convert over," Smith said. "We're going to win games. It's going to happen, just stick with the process. That's what he would always say to us."

Whatever the reason, Josh Smith is something of a tourist on the way through Auburn Hills tonight. He will listen to the boos, and play his game, and move on with the Rockets. They're on the way to something this season, and Josh Smith feels a part of it now. Between management's commitment to winning, the hunger of Dwight Howard and James Harden to prove themselves as championship contenders, this is a franchise with a chip on its shoulder, with something to prove. Smith fits here. Finally, he fits perfectly.

"I feel like the emotions and fire is back for me," he said. "I had a lot of fun in Atlanta. We were winning and successful for a majority of years that I was there. Then I fell into a dark hole, because when you're a player in this league, and you see the journey and road it takes to have success, become part of a pretty good team, and then you go back down … Well, you appreciate this more."

When Josh Smith walked out of the Pistons' practice facility for the final time on Dec. 22, he could hear the angst of his father, his family. Oh man, Josh was going to get it again, and they loathed it for him. As everyone was winding up to take their shots again, he assured them all: "This is a blessing." And so far, he's been right. Josh Smith has made himself matter in the NBA again, made himself fulfilled, but just don't expect to see him in your timelines telling you all about it, running back all the scorn in real time. He's playing winning ball again, having a blast, and will do with all the praise what he had done with all the criticism: Let it go, let it all go, and live.