Joe Smith has played a total of 17 minutes for the Lakers this season, scoring two points with six rebounds and a block. The former No. 1 overall pick in 1995, a year before Kobe Bryant and Derek Fisher entered the league, Smith recognized when he was traded from New Jersey as part of the Sasha Vujacic deal that playing time would be hard to come by.
But that doesn’t mean he’s sitting around twiddling his thumbs.
His primary focus has been on learning the triangle offense, perhaps the only system he didn’t see while playing for 11 other teams. Additionally, he’s trying to be a positive locker room presence for a group of like-minded veterans. He has even taken over the role of the final pregame motivator previously occupied by Josh Powell, offering words of encouragement and varying hand shakes to Kobe and Co. just before opening tip.
Smith arrived prior to the team’s road contest at Philadelphia, and, after wins against the Sixers and Raptors, he watched from the bench as the twice defending champs lose three straight games to Milwaukee, Miami and San Antonio. But Smith’s been around too long to read too much into a short December swoon, and remained confident things would turn around particularly once Andrew Bynum returned to the starting line up, signifying his return to relative health. The night after the loss to the Spurs, Bynum was there for the opening tip, and since then the Lakers have won 10 of 12 games, including a run of seven straight wins.
It’s pretty simple, really, says the guy who practices against L.A.’s nearly 21 feet of big men.
“You’ve got two seven footers out there starting and that’s tough on anybody to begin with,” said Smith. “One (Gasol) that can stretch the floor, put the ball on the floor and the other (Bynum) who commands the paint. That’s always going to be effective in this league, and when you have a talent like Lamar (Odom) accepting that role off the bench and playing like he’s been playing, that’s a trio that is always going to be tough for anybody to match up with.”
In Smith’s eyes, the Lakers are getting closer and closer to being the dominant team he thought he was joining, outscoring opponents by a total of 127 points during that 12-game stretch (10.6 per game) .
“The team’s really been showing up lately, and it’s been a team effort now that everyone is getting more used to the defensive scheme,” he said. “Offensively, shots are falling that weren’t really going down when I first got here, but mostly it’s just a greater intensity out there.”
There were countless games in which Smith wore the jersey of the Sixers, Timberwolves or Warriors and watched Bryant go on one of his patented scoring bursts, but Smith took particular pleasure in witnessing Bryant’s 17-point fourth quarter explosion at Golden State on Jan. 12.
“You get excited … it’s just a whole different scenario,” he explained. “I know what type of closer he is in the fourth quarter from watching him opposite the court, but seeing how much confidence he has taking those shots is what makes him Kobe. For my first time, it was real impressive.”
Smith didn’t play in that game, but he was of course in the locker room when Bryant walked in, thinking to himself that it was telling to see Bryant acting the same way as he had after the previous (55-point) win over Cleveland, keeping the even keel Smith said is so important in the middle of the regular season.
Right now, Smith’s content to watch, and learn, trying to get himself ready in case Phil Jackson has to call his number.