Craig Smith: Rhino, Caged
In all of its various forms, "tanking" does offer something of a release for a team and its fans. The pressure to win evaporates, and in its place is a freedom of play and rotational responsibility that can occasionally engender some truly entertaining basketball.
Thus has been the case in spots for the Portland Trail Blazers, who have navigated the tail end of their season with—if nothing else—the slightest modicum of fun and intrigue. The Blazers may be functionally irrelevant as they forfeited their chance to compete for a playoff berth. But in place of a struggling team, we now have a test-run for an unproven coach, a chance at redemption for a miscast J.J. Hickson, an audition for Nolan Smith and Luke Babbitt, and a proper showcase for Jonny Flynn and Hasheem Thabeet. It's not always (or often, or at all) pristine basketball, but considering how miserable Portland was playing prior to the deadline, its tanking trail has been an arguable upgrade.
Yet what we don't have is any trace of Craig Smith: the Rhino of a power forward who had performed fairly well for the Blazers in spots, but saw the rug pulled out from under him in the team's disarray. From Chris Haynes of CSNNW:
"When (Nate) McMillan started he said 'You haven't been here, you got to work yourself into the rotation.' I work my way into the rotation, I think we we started losing, he wanted to change it up," Smith said.
"Since we were losing, I kind of got budded out of the situation."
After McMillan was fired on the day of the trade deadline, assistant coach Kaleb Canales took over as the interim head coach. The first thing Canales did was talk to each of his players to find out where they felt they best could help this team win games. Immediately, you saw Jamal Crawford playing the two-guard position permanently, you saw Raymond Felton with more freedom, and guys such as Luke Babbitt, Nolan Smith, and (Craig) Smith were getting more minutes.
Once again, things changed for Smith.
"Kaleb, great guy, we won the first game out in Chicago and I thought I pretty much solidified. Was told I was going to have an opportunity, but things changed...I'm not trying to be all about myself, but at the same time I work really hard to put myself in the best position possible, the best shape to stay on the court constantly. But to see me not play a lot of minutes is very frustrating."
Considering that the situation in Portland is undoubtedly frustrating for those who are getting to play, one can only imagine the tough spot that players like Smith now find themselves in. He's caught whiffs of playing time at various stages in the season, but even with the Blazers' playoff hopes effectively mortgaged, Smith has been buried in the rotation without a chance to prove himself or establish momentum heading into unrestricted free agency this summer.
Smith is a capable player with specific, NBA-caliber skills, but lies in a set so precise that he's easy to overlook. He's too short to be a reliable post player and isn't all that effective of a finisher in the pick and roll. Yet in each of his six NBA seasons, the story has been the same: Smith, however improbably, makes something out of nothing. He mucks up broken possessions to power to the rim. He grabs an offensive rebound that his team converts for a basket. He produces (to the tune of a career 16.2 points per 36 minutes on 55 percent shooting), but lacks the tantalizing height and length that make scouts go gaga.
He's not a project. He hasn't shown much tangible growth in his NBA career thus far. And yet, in terms of reserve bigs, teams can—and have—done far, far worse, all in the name of chasing potential or employing retreads. Smith needs a window of consistent minutes even more than Thabeet or Hickson do; those two at least have physical tools and past production to lean on respectively, whereas Smith's résumé is either easily disregarded or easily ignored. This window of the season was supposed to be his own personal proving ground, and while no one can fault the Blazers for taking stock of the younger assets they've acquired here and there, the dynamics of Portland's situation offer no consolation to Smith.
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