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Why the Rockets waived Greg Smith to sign Dexter Pittman

Dale Zanine / USA TODAY Sports

Yesterday it was announced that the Houston Rockets would waive reserve center Greg Smith, and sign a different reserve center, Dexter Pittman, for the last week of the regular season and the playoffs. Houston is looking to add some center depth in light of the continued absence of Dwight Howard, which leaves Omer Asik as the only rotation calibre five. Pittman, a well established fringe NBA player, is a good candidate for said depth, and he comes with the added benefit of being playoff eligible.

Pittman had signed a 10-day contract with the Atlanta Hawks on February 22nd, thereby seemingly commiting himself to being eligible for Atlanta and Atlanta only in the postseason. This was due to the rule whereby players on an NBA roster on March 1st are only eligible to play for that team in the postseason that year, a rule often misunderstood to be a rule whereby a player must be signed by March 1st to be playoff eligible,  which is not the case. Atlanta, however, terminated Pittman's contract after only five days in order to sign their 2013 draft pick Mike Muscala to a deal running through 2017, thereby immediately returning him to the free agency pool prior to the important March 1st date and keeping open his playoff eligibility for any team.

Pittman has always been on the fringes of the NBA because of his combination of physical tools - his size, strength, good hands and great footwork. It is a combination that cannot be taught and is rare to find. He has never survived very long in the biggest league, however, despite a relatively high draft position and a three-year contract, on account that this combination of tools has never proven especially effective for him.

A mediocre rebounder and defender, Pittman has never found a role. A decent finisher who cannot create his own offense consistently, who is besieged by foul and turnover problems, he often looks unaware on both ends of the court, is aggressive when he should be deferrential, and is passive when he should be decisive. The mistakes and flaws that have long played his game still do - he has developed little and, while still a talent, relies a lot upon circumstance and name recognition at this point.

Moreover, in cutting Smith, Houston is not exactly siphoning off dead weight. Far from it, in fact. Smith was a quality full time backup centre to Asik before Howard arrived, and has long since proven himself worthy of a significant role in the rotation of a high calibre NBA team. He has been used very little since Howard's arrival, of course, mostly due to his own injuries. Yet this does not make him any run of the mill third stringer. This is not a fringe NBA player here. This is a proven one of some ability.

The reason Houston sees fit to jettison this quality player for someone else playing his position is due to Smith's injury status, after knee surgery that will keep him out for the remainder of a season he has already missed most of. Houston, it seems, values  the need for this centre depth sans Howard so sufficiently as to merit waiving Smith, who, despite his limited usage this season, has proven worthy of the minimum salary and then some at the position where this is hardest to do.

They have done so rather than waive another player - like, say, the little used Robert Covington, who has spent most of the season in the D-League, or recent signee Troy Daniels, no closer to a rotation than Smith - perhaps to sustain some level of roster balance, perhaps due to really really really wanting 15 healthy bodies, or perhaps due only to their continued commitments to these valued prospects. If so, they have overvalued them and undervalued Smith.

'Flexibility' seems to have been the priority here. The freedom to not have to extend Smith a guaranteed qualify offer of $1,148,963 when not having a role for him, of being able to sign Pittman to future unguaranteed seasons (assuming for a moment this has happened) so as to possibly use him in trades down the road, of keeping the players in the five roster spots outside of the rotation as fluid as possible. This is the Rockets' way, and there is a lot to be said for it. Waiving a player who cannot help you for the duration of his contract, in favour of picking up those for dirt cheap who possibly could, makes plenty of sense on the face of things.

This is all fairly common at this time of the season, too. However, it is not so for players of Smith's calibre. He is better than this, injuries and all, and is likely to be subject to multiple waivers bids in the coming hours. In the event of multiple waiver bids on the same player, the team with the lowest record gets him. Smith therefore likely will not get past Philadelphia, or even Milwaukee if they choose to waive a player they will not re-sign next summer - like, say, Ramon Sessions - in order to open up a roster spot for claiming him. And they ought. 

Furthermore, despite his impending free agency, Smith offers his own flexibility down the road. His persistent injuries do not negate the quality of his play, and his play merited either keeping him or exploring the sign and trade route. It is a sore loss for the Rockets and their fans because they know what they are losing and are not blind to it. Yet they are prepared to lose it anyway so as to not overpay to keep it. As if paying slightly over the odds for 23-year-old fairly proven NBA centers was a bad thing. This is not another Jackie Butler here, and Smith is now available to anyone willing to spend $1,000 on a waiver claim. For that money, you get his restricted free agency and full Bird rights. Those are things teams should want.

Smith, without overvaluing him or dealing too much in hyperbole, was a rare find. He is a center (sort of) with great hands, hustle, productivity and skill. Without being a great rim protector or great post-up threat, he nevertheless contributes on both ends of the court, and consistently. Pittman is much the same, but three years older, not nearly as consistent, and worse. He has the advantage of being healthy over the next few weeks, but this was not worth losing the value Smith still had. The relative inconsequentiality of a decision does not justify the logic behind it.

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