It was a tender moment, Josh Smith draping an arm around the massive shoulders of Dwight Howard last spring as the players spoke with the media before the Houston Rockets opened the Western Conference semifinals against the Clippers.
They were childhood friends and travel-ball teammates growing up in Atlanta whose bond seemed as though it might be strengthened this summer when Smith became a free agent and the Rockets could offer him more money than other suitors.
Then Smith’s phone rang when free agency started. It was the Clippers.
“They were the first people to call when free agency hit,” Smith said Monday during training camp at UC Irvine, “so that sticks with a player, having genuine feelings on who wants you as a player, and that’s what you want, especially at this stage of your career.”
Clippers Coach Doc Rivers said he eventually assumed he wasn’t going to be able to land the 11-year veteran as free agency stretched into mid-July, but General Manager Dave Wohl kept calling every day until Smith signed a veteran’s minimum contract.
Now Smith has embraced a new set of teammates, including longtime pal Jamal Crawford, who played alongside Smith for two seasons with the Atlanta Hawks. Center Cole Aldrich gave Smith’s son a piggyback ride and had him wave from the back of the media horde at the team’s practice facility during media day.
The 6-foot-9 Smith has played a lot of center in scrimmages as part of the Clippers’ small-ball second unit also consisting of Crawford, Austin Rivers, Lance Stephenson and Paul Pierce. The early returns have been universally positive.
“We’re just running and I feel like nobody can guard us because the floor’s so open,” Stephenson said.
Said Smith: “I kind of feel like our only problem is over-passing because we have so much talent.”
Smith, who turns 30 in December, will also back up Blake Griffin at power forward. Smith said he has been encouraged by the team’s businesslike approach — “There’s no airspace for any B.S.,” he said — and dedication toward fulfilling the championship vision that team owner Steve Ballmer shared during a recent dinner with players.
“Everybody always wants to be first,” Smith said, “but it’s all about being the last team standing. That really stuck with me and I feel like if everybody has that mentality we can do some special things this year.”
Stephenson on the Clippers’ level of talent: “Even when we play in scrimmages, it feels like an All-Star game to me.” … Rivers said Stephenson would begin participating in full practices Tuesday after being held out of some drills because of lingering effects from a groin injury. … Asked if anything caught his attention among the returning players, Rivers cited DeAndre Jordan’s passing and said, “Austin is playing more like the playoffs all the time now” because of increased confidence.