The Wizards signed two players from the Orlando Magic last season, to wildly different reactions from fans last month. Many applauded Washington locking up Andrew Nicholson to a four-year, $26 million deal that will carry him through his prime NBA years. Most of those same people were not thrilled by the team’s decision to give Smith a three-year, $16 million deal to essentially be the team’s third-string center, behind Marcin Gortat and Ian Mahinmi.
It’s been over a month since those deals went through and nothing has happened to change the tide of opinion. If anything, the Smith signing just looks worse because the Wizards have a glut at center and very little depth at small forward.
Perhaps the best way to try to understand Washington’s thinking with the Nicholson and Smith deals is not to look at them as separate deals, but as a package. After all, they did play together quite a bit (386 minutes) last season. That’s more time than Ramon Sessions played with Kelly Oubre or John Wall played with Kris Humphries in 2015-16.
Together, Nicholson and Smith were quite effective. When they played together on the floor, they outscored opponents by 7.6 points per 100 possessions. They were Orlando’s only two-man combination that played at least 200 minutes together and outscored opponents by that much.
To understand why the pairing was so effective, let’s look at an example from a November game against the Cavaliers. Cleveland put Anderson Varejao on Andrew Nicholson to try and deter him from using his repertoire of low post moves, and put James Jones on Jason Smith to try and keep him from letting it fly from outside.
To counter that strategy, the Magic flipped the script on Cleveland using Smith to attack the lane on pick & roll plays. Here, Orlando ran a Napier-Smith pick & roll to draw Varejao into the paint, which allowed Napier to fire an easy crosscourt pass to Nicholson for a three:
What’s beautiful here is had Cleveland had switched the coverage, they could have run something similar in reverse, by posting Nicholson up on Jones. If Varejao had slid over to try and cover him, he could have kicked it out to Smith, who shot 48.3 percent from the mid-range last season, the fourth-best percentage in the NBA among players who attempted at least 200 shots from that area last season.
While Nicholson and Smith may not be the most dynamic frontcourt duo in the NBA, together they’re more skilled than your average tandem off the bench. If opposing teams trot out a traditional big like Varejao to cover either one of them, they can make them pay from outside.
But surprisingly, where they performed best was on the defensive end. When Nicholson and Smith were on the floor, they held opposing teams to 93.1 points per 100 possessions. Granted, most of those minutes came against other team’s reserves, but that’s who they’ll be facing most of the time in Washington as well. While Smith may not be Ian Mahinmi, he can hold his own as a rim protector, and Nicholson has the strength and versatility to handle a wide variety of players at the 4 spot when he’s engaged.
Of course, the problem here is that it’s hard to see Nicholson and Smith getting a lot of time together because of Ian Mahinmi. As good as these two played together last season, that’s just not enough of a reason for Smith to play meaningful minutes ahead of Mahinmi or Gortat.
Still, injuries do happen, and if they do, Smith’s chemistry with Nicholson should be enough to help the Wizards do more than merely survive their absence next season.