Over the course of an 82-game season, it’s perfectly normal to build a unique one-sided relationship with the players on your favorite team. Like any other relationship, these players can sometimes put you through the emotional ringer. You cheer and boo them, love and hate them, sing their praises one day and slam them the very next. As Clippers fans, most of the relationships we embark on are short lived. We endure a year of the Rick Brunson’s of the world, laugh about it, and flee the scene as quickly as possible so we can dream about next year. When I look back on the 2009-2010 Clippers, yeah, I’ll remember knee injuries and water-main breaks, but I’ll also remember talking to Craig Smith for the first time.
It was my first time covering an NBA game live, and as such, my first foray into an NBA locker room. When I approached Baron Davis with the other members of the media, I felt like a sheep wondering into the wolf den. This was Baron freaking Davis. I was genuinely frightened to look at the man, let alone brave enough to ask him a question. Thankfully, a few members of the media eventually broke off from Baron and moved over to Craig Smith’s locker. With a giant ice pack wrapped around his elbow from another night of banging with men much larger than him, Craig Smith held court and entertained all our questions. Smith spoke in a calm, quiet voice, laughed and joked graciously, and even talked about his pickup basketball prowess while lamenting on his imagined squad of himself, Sebastian Telfair, and Baron Davis. Even after only a few minutes with the man they call “Rhino”, you came away with the impression that he just loved to play basketball. After a relatively meaningless game in a losing season, that certainly wasn’t the easiest vibe to give off, but Smith did it.
I’ve yet to come across a single type of fan who couldn’t appreciate Craig Smith. The armchair quarterbacks (for lack of a better term) love him because Smith plays the game the way they always thought they would: hard. He bangs, he scraps for every inch, and he hits everything that moves. The average fan can’t fathom leaping from the foul line and throwing down a jam, but everyone can relate to sticking a shoulder into someone’s chest. The statheads can appreciate him all the same. Smith shot 56.9% from the field this season, had the second highest adjusted +/- number on the team, had a PER rating of 16.9, was the best offensive rebounder on the team, and posted the second best defensive rating of all Clippers.
Even the most casual of Clippers fans could appreciate one thing about Craig Smith: He always seemed to play well against the Lakers. In the four hallway rivalry games, Smith averaged 13.3 points and 5.5 rebounds on 61% percent shooting in limited minutes. Smith served as the primary fourth quarter scoring option in what you would call the “biggest” games of the year, despite going against a Lakers frontline that all the way across was six to seven inches taller than him. For those brief moments he was our very own David sticking it to Goliath, and we loved him for it.
Craig Smith is an unrestricted free agent this Summer, and it’s unclear whether he fits into the Clippers plans for the future. Sofo Schortsanitis has been rumored to finally come overseas from Greece, which would seem to occupy the backup low post scoring big man role that Craig Smith held last season. But no matter what happens, it’s almost certain that Craig Smith will be a bargain for someone.
Even though he’ll be available for cheap, Smith will likely be overlooked for much of free agency. Teams will be scared off by his height like usual, and will be mostly unimpressed by the lack of diversity his skill set has to offer. They’ll worry about him fouling, and they’ll worry about him on the defensive end. They’ll conclude (perhaps correctly) that Smith is primarily a low post scorer and offensive rebounder and not much more. They’ll declare him as limited.
But what they may not conclude is that Craig Smith is a good basketball player because he’s aware of those limitations. He’s not the most talented guy in the world, but he maximizes what he has to work with. There’s a common trait all great teams share — they’re filled with self-aware players who play within themselves. You can blame Dunleavy for not assigning roles or getting guys to buy into them, or you can blame players like Baron Davis who routinely tried to do things outside of their capabilities, but either way there’s no arguing that the 2009-2010 Clippers were a team without an identity that lacked any real cohesiveness.
Craig Smith knew his role and performed it well, but he was just one part of a puzzle that was missing more than a few pieces. Like so many of the Clipper relationships in the past, this pairing was nothing more than a case of wrong place, wrong time.