There was a time, not too long ago, when Jason Smith might have been the worst player in the NBA; seriously, the worst player. Through the first 16 games of the season, Smith had an effective field goal percentage under 37, per NBA.com, and Washington had a -15.4 net rating with him on the floor. Put simply, things were not going well.
But, thankfully for the Wizards, the ninth year big man eventually turned things around. He started rebounding better, proved to be a solid defender, and was finally nailing the midrange jumpers that were a big part of the reason why he landed a three year, $16 million contract over the summer. Since the start of December, Smith is shooting better than 58 percent – including over 50 percent on midrange jumpers – and Washington has a respectable (by Wizards bench standards) -2.2 net rating with him on the floor.
The last few months, Smith has been far more deserving of his deal than the other two big men the team signed in free agency. He was able to slide into the backup center role nicely with Ian Mahinmi missing the majority of the first half of the season, and helped Washington’s reserves at least tread water during their 18-3 run before the All-Star break.
Despite his improved play, Smith has been relegated to the bench more now that Ian Mahinmi is healthy. The Wizards’ $64 million man returned to action on February 8th against the Nets, and split time with Smith on the second unit as he regained his footing.
Even after a few unimpressive showings leading up to the All-Star break, it seems that Scott Brooks has decided Mahinmi should assume the role of full-time backup center. And now that Washington looks to be committed to playing more small-ball with Bojan Bogdanovic, there is only room for one big man coming off the bench. This makes finding a spot for Smith in the rotation much more difficult.
All of this leads up to a question that most, myself included, probably thought would never be asked: Should Jason Smith be playing more?
Mahinmi provides more upside, at least defensively, as the Wizards’ third big man, but he is coming off a plethora of injuries which have him looking like he’s a long way away from being a meaningful contributor. He has not looked comfortable on either side of the ball since returning to the lineup, and Washington is posting an atrocious -20.8 net rating with him on the floor since his return - far and away worse than Smith even at his lowest point in November.
Even during Sunday’s loss to the Jazz, Mahinmi’s best game of the season, he made some critical late game mistakes. He struggled to defend the pick and roll, did not box out Derrick Favors on multiple occasions, and was called for an illegal screen at one point as well – although he probably should have been called for upwards of three.
It is not altogether surprising, or alarming, that Mahinmi has struggled so much. It takes time to brush off the rust after missing 50 games. But the Wizards are not in a position that allows them to wait and see if he can improve. They are right in the middle of the race for home court advantage during the first round of the playoffs, and have fallen into a tie with Toronto for third in the East after dropping their last two games.
This is not all to say that Washington should forget about Mahinmi completely. Moving forward, he is a better fit than Smith in Washington’s second unit given his defensive presence and rim protection. (Not to mention the fact that he is making more money than John Wall this year.)
But Mahinmi has missed significant time because of troubles with his knees, and has had back problems as well. If he can’t regain his footing in a hurry, Coach Brooks should not feel overly committed to sticking with him as the Wizards’ third big man, as Smith has proven to be more than capable of filling that role this season.