DENVER (AP) — Ish Smith has suited up for an NBA-record 13 different teams — nearly half the league — over his 13-year career.
Team No. 13, the Denver Nuggets, has truly proven lucky for the longtime point guard whose journey has included seven trades, six releases and two early G-League stints. The road well-traveled by Ish (full name: Ishmael) has led him here, his first NBA Finals as the Nuggets sit a win away from the franchise’s first championship. Up 3-1 on Miami, the team could clinch Monday night at home in Game 5.
It hardly matters that Smith, who turns 35 next month, hasn’t played much in the playoffs — or at all in the Finals. He’s content with having the best seat in the house on the bench and doing what he’s always done so well — encourage. He’s become an assistant coach-ish type of presence and a voice that resonates throughout the locker room.
“When you can have veterans that are truly selfless and not worried about, ‘Hey, I’m not in the playoff rotation,’ but they’re still invested in the team and the team’s success and they’re willing to use their voice in a positive manner, that is really impactful,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said.
Smith broke into the league in 2010 with the Houston Rockets as an undrafted free agent out of Wake Forest. One of his teammates at the time was Heat guard Kyle Lowry, who still to this day affectionately refers to Smith as “Rook” — short for rookie.
“He’s a guy who persevered. Wasn’t the greatest shooter, wasn’t the greatest this, but he just found a way to find a niche in this league and find a niche on every single team he’s been on,” Lowry said. “And to be a great veteran, a great veteran presence, a great positive vibe for every team he’s played for.
“Thirteen teams is a lot of teams, but obviously he’s done his job. … He’s done something correct.”
In addition to Houston and Denver, Smith’s tour around the 30-team NBA includes stops in Memphis, Golden State, Orlando, Milwaukee, Phoenix, Oklahoma City, Philadelphia, New Orleans, Detroit, Washington and Charlotte. He appeared in 43 games over the regular season for the Nuggets. In the Finals, his role has been reduced to more of a motivator.
Other sage veterans weigh in, too.
There’s 34-year-old DeAndre Jordan, Reggie Jackson, 33, and 36-year-old Jeff Green, who’s an integral part of the second unit. The Nuggets have won two straight since he hosted a team dinner at his house in Miami before Game 3.
“When they talk, everybody listens because if you listen to them, you can hear some really smart things that can help you play the game,” Nuggets do-it-all center Nikola Jokic said. “I really appreciate and am really thankful for them.”
Over his career, Smith’s filled every kind of role (he started 50 games in Philly in 2015-16 when he averaged a career-best 14.7 points) and worn 10 different uniform numbers. His favorite is No. 14, which is his current number.
Somewhere, Smith has his vast collection of past jerseys. They’re probably at his mom’s house, he believes, for safe keeping — considering all the moves he’s made.
Someday, he’ll round them up. But not to be framed and placed on a wall.
“That just feels narcissistic, like me celebrating me,” Smith said.
Instead, his plan is to celebrate others in the form of themed walls around his home. On one wall, uniforms worn by players who’ve hailed from the state of North Carolina, an homage to his Charlotte roots.
Another wall will be dedicated to veteran players he’s crossed paths with (such as Jordan and Green in Denver). A third wall will feature a tribute to Wake Forest royalty (think: Muggsy Bogues, Chris Paul, Tim Duncan).
Lastly, a championship wall, which he’s hoping includes everyone from this Nuggets roster.
“It’s been fun. I can’t even lie to you. You usually don’t say that when you’re not playing and you’re in a leadership role,” Smith said. “It’s truly been fun.”
The secret to Smith’s longevity has been a simple rule — don’t take anything personal. That applies to criticism or basketball decisions. He was part of the deal that brought Kentavious Caldwell-Pope to the Nuggets last offseason from Washington in exchange for Will Barton and Monte Morris.
“Realize what you have to do to get better and find your fit,” said Smith, whose wife is expecting in three months. “On top of that, just keep going, keep pushing, keep pressing.”
As for how much longer he wants to play, that’s easy.
“Until they cut off the lights and say don’t come back,” Smith joked.