Do the Indiana Pacers just have a team-wide trait, like a fantasy race in a role-playing game, where “centers who protect the rim but can’t rebound worth a lick” are part and parcel of that trait?
Because they have Myles Turner today (6.6 rebounds per game for his career), they had Roy Hibbert before (6.3 rpg), and the OG Pacers center who couldn’t rebound is the subject of today’s edition of Was He Any Good, the Dunking Dutchman, all 7-foot-4 and 6.1 rebounds per game of him, Rik Smits.
Smits was All-Rookie in 1988-89 after the Pacers drafted him with the second overall pick of a blissfully mediocre 1988 NBA Draft in which Danny Manning went first and tons of solid-but-unspectacular NBA players went behind the top two, including Mitch Richmond (yes, he was a Hall of Famer, but we went over that here a couple of weeks ago), Hersey Hawkins, Anthony Mason, Will Perdue, Dan Majerle, Rod Strickland, Vinny Del Negro, Grant Long, and the guy who had the most WS/48 (.140) of anyone in the draft, Steve Kerr, who went with the 50th pick at the end of the second round.
Come to think of it, that’s a laundry list of guys who belong in this feature at some point.
But let’s get this back on topic with the guy who was eighth in WS/48, seventh in overall Win Shares, and tenth in VORP out of all the guys in that draft class and ask “was Rik Smits any good?”
Smits wasn’t a Hall of Famer and only made one All-Star team, so the bar’s pretty low here, but he’ll have to do a little bit better than “solid starter” to make a Confirmed dent here.
The Counting Stats
In a 12-year career that spanned 867 career games, Smits averaged 14.8 points and 6.1 rebounds per game, good enough to net him a grand total of 12,871 points and 5,277 rebounds.
He also blocked 1,111 shots and dished out 1,215 assists, good for 1.3 and 1.4 per game, respectively.
Decent. Not great, not awful.
He had decent touch on his shots, most of which came fairly close to the rim but a fair few of which were in that dead zone out past three feet (just how far out past is, sadly, lost to history as shot data on Basketball Reference starts the year after Smits retired), good for a 50.7 FG%, and his great-for-a-big-man free throw shooting (77.3 percent) shows just how much finesse the big guy had, rare for a guy well over seven feet tall.
Smits even hit three 3-pointers (on 26 attempts) in his career, which is one more than Ben Simmons has managed (he’s 2-of-24) so far.
And at his peak, Smits averaged, in three seasons from 1995 through ’97, 17.9, 18.5, and 17.1 points per game, making him the second-leading scorer in Larry Brown‘s Pacers offense behind only the great Reggie Miller.
And as for the rebounding, well, it was never Smits’ primary job. The Pacers had Detlef Schrempf for that early in Smits’ career and Dale Davis for it later. Davis routinely averaged just under 10 rebounds a game (except in 1994, when the big guy hoovered up 10.9 rebounds a contest) while Schrempf, as a sixth man, yanked down 9.6 rebounds a game in 1991 and 9.5 the following season.
Smits, for his part, never pulled down more than 7.7 rebounds per contest, but he didn’t have to.
But all of the above just paints the picture of a decent but never great second option, and that second option was good enough to get Indiana to five Eastern Conference Finals and one NBA Finals during Smits’ tenure with the team.
We’re going to need to dig deeper here, so…
The Advanced Stats
Among the 14 NBA centers who played at least 2,000 minutes in 2018-19, Marc Gasol was dead last at .118 WS/48.
That’s Smits’ career total.
Smits’ advanced numbers are a picture of perfect mediocrity, with a 17.9 PER, .118 WS/48, minus-0.2 BPM, and a paltry 1.0 VORP/82 on relative statistical invisibility in terms of rate- and pace-adjusted counting stats (13.3 rebounding percentage, 9.3 AST%, 3.2 BLK%…all of these are completely stock-standard average to slightly-below-average good enough to stay in the league but not good enough to impress anyone numbers.)
Smits made one All-Star team, but oddly enough it wasn’t even the season he truly deserved to be an All-Star.
In 1997-98, Smits played with the big boys in February on .141 WS/48 and 1.6 VORP, but he was left off the All-Star team in 1994, when he put up 7.8 WS (.177 per 48) and his only trip above two VORP (2.3), and even those are fringe All-Star numbers at best.
Domantas Sabonis, whose 62 games this season included an All-Star appearance, posted .167 WS/48 and 2.9 VORP and there was a ton of controversy whether he belonged among the East’s best big men. That’s the kind of headwind Smits faced, and the league had better centers back then. If anything, Smits benefited most from Shaquille O’Neal running off to Los Angeles and leaving a power vacuum behind Patrick Ewing in the pecking order.
Let’s Look At Those Counting Stats Again
Smits either benefits from or is hurt by his per-36 minutes stats depending on whether you want to take them at face value and marvel at a guy who averaged 20.1 points and 8.2 rebounds per 36…
..or ding the guy because he averaged just 26.6 minutes per game despite being a starter for just about his entire career, his limited defensive capabilities often leaving the Pacers playing Schrempf off the bench at power forward and LaSalle Thompson in the middle early, while later shuffling Antonio Davis into the 4 spot and moving Dale Davis to center when they needed to match up with stiffer big man competition down low.
On the one hand, great, Smits was the second-leading scorer and powered an inside-outside game that got Miller good shots.
On the other hand, how good is a starter, really, who only gets in for half of his team’s minutes without being chronically injured?
It grades out as a net neutral in theory, but in practice it detracts from the idea of Smits as a fringe All-Star when he wasn’t the best center on his own team in a lot of ways.
That’s the thing this all boils down to with Smits. He was really good at some things, not-so-great at others, and except for the rebounding, not truly bad at anything.
But solid center and fringe All-Star is hard to justify when the Pacers had to adjust their lineups to cover over Smits’ weaknesses against the Eastern Conference teams that kept them out of the Finals during the Jordan Interregnum (and Hakeem Olajuwon would’ve eaten Smits’ lunch in the ’94 or ’95 Finals) and then, notably, again in 1999 (when Ewing, as he always did, dominated Smits down low.)
Was Rik Smits good? More so than not, yes. But that does not a Confirmed plate make. I’m calling this Plausible.