"He plays a lot like Larry, I hope."
- Red Auerbach, June 27, 1989Now we know that even Red Auerbach can
Commentarymake a mistake. Michael Smith could play basketball until he is too old to dribble, and he will never play the game the way Larry Bird does.
Auerbach uttered those unprophetic words about Smith moments after the Boston Celtics used the 13th pick in the 1989 NBA draft to select the 6-10 forward from Brigham Young.
The Celtics were desperate for a guard who could play defense, but they chose a forward who can shoot.
Auerbach blew it. Big time.
More than halfway through his second season, Smith is no better than the 9th or 10th player on Boston's 12-man roster. He logs his minutes when a game is obviously won or hopelessly lost.
His most memorable performance this season, a 23-point, 18-minute stint on Jan. 30, occurred against Orlando. He did manage 13 points hitting six of eight shots in a blowout loss at Chicago earlier this week.
But only when a teammate is injured does Smith get meaningful minutes. To say that Michael Smith has been a huge disappointment is a huge understatement.
This season he has played in 35 of Boston's 54 games. Heading into Wednesday night's game with Minnesota, he was averaging a 5.1 points and 1.3 rebounds per game. His defense is always a liability.
And to think the Celtics picked this guy, who never saw a shot he didn't like, ahead of talents such as Tim Hardaway, Todd Lichti, B.J. Armstrong and Vlade Divac.
The Celtics (read that Auerbach) liked Smith for his offensive skills. He averaged 19 points per season in four years at BYU and stands second on the school's all-time scoring list behind Danny Ainge. He buried 43 percent of his shots from three-point range and 88 percent of his free throws.
Smith obviously knew how to put the ball in the hole in college. And he could thread the needle with nifty passes.
" . . . the best passing big man in the country . . . a great scorer . . . runs the court . . . " Auerbach gushed on that June night almost two years ago.
So what happened?
First, Smith reported to training camp out of shape. Then he developed shin splints and a lower back injury. He started the season on the injured list.
Not a good first impression.
The Celtics activated Smith in mid-November last season. He appeared in 40 consecutive games from Jan. 12 to April 4 and started seven consecutive games from Feb. 23 to March 9. He averaged 14 points during that period. Boston won the first four games he started, but lost the next three. When the Bullets beat the Celtics in Hartford, Jimmy Rodgers put Smith back on the bench.
Although Smith showed flashes of offensive brilliance as a rookie, he also had shots blocked because he took so long to release the ball. And although he could run the wings on the break, he couldn't create his own shots.
And Smith played turnstile defense - he spun around as opponents drove by him.
Little has changed this season, although Smith says he is aware that his playing time depends on improved defense and rebounding, that every day he has more of a mindset to improve in those areas.
His playing time also depends on his production when coach Chris Ford puts him on the floor. Smith doesn't have the luxury of missing five shots to warm up.
"Whenever he's called upon, he's got to be able to do it" Ford said.
Smith knows and accepts that condition. "There are no excuses at this level," he said. "If you're going to make it, if you're going to survive, you have to stand tall and be ready."
The question with Michael Smith is whether he will survive with the Celtics beyond next season. With good reason, he has generated little interest in the trade market. But his contract runs for another year, so the Celts may be stuck with him.
So Auerbach erred in choosing Michael Smith in 1989. Look at it this way, though. Had Auerbach chosen Hardaway or any other guard, Dave Gavitt probably would not have gone for Dee Brown last June.