Posted July 12, 2013

Could Josh Smith to the Pistons be one of the most underrated signings of the offseason?

2013 NBA free agency, Detroit Pistons, Josh Smith, Rob Mahoney
Josh Smith signed a four-year, $54 million deal with the Pistons.

Josh Smith signed a four-year, $54 million deal with the Pistons. (Allen Einstein/NBAE via Getty Images)

Pretty much anything that Josh Smith does at this point in his career is guaranteed to draw guffawing cynicism in response. He’s an easy target, and though some of the public negativity that clouds around Smith is well-earned, he nonetheless ranks as one of the game’s better players and registers far more good than harm. The punchlines are readily available, but they seem to have contributed to a collective understatement of Smith’s value, particularly relative to his newly minted four-year, $54 million deal with the Pistons.

Detroit didn’t exactly need Smith, but his addition — and rumored positioning at small forward — isn’t an incontrovertible disaster. He’s oscillated between both forward slots for years, and though Smith’s skill set may better jibe with conventional definitions of a power forward, that in itself didn’t stop him from being a tremendously effective wing option for Atlanta in the right lineups.

Former Hawks (and current Bucks) head coach Larry Drew understood this well, pushing Smith back to small forward as a means of combating the Pacers midway through the first round of the 2013 playoffs. When matched up with NBA darling Paul George, Smith powered his way into easy scores from the low block (while working against the best defense in the league, and while sharing the floor with Al Horford and another rotation big) and locked in to smother George defensively. From the time of that adjustment, George went on to convert just 38.1 percent of his field goals whenever Smith was on the floor.

That he will likely default to small forward in this new set does make the newly-hired Mo Cheeks’ job more difficult in terms of constructing lineups and balancing the offense, but there’s hope for his efforts in the oft-used combinations employed by the Hawks in recent seasons. Most recently: In 2012-13, a five-man unit featuring Smith, Horford and Zaza Pachulia rated as one of the Hawks’ best. Cluttered passing lanes did lead to a notable increase in turnovers, but Atlanta shot brilliantly from the floor overall and posted an effective field goal percentage of 55.9 — a mark slightly better than the Heat’s league-leading season average. The Hawks also benefitted from a huge improvement on the boards when operating in that lineup, and in the final balance that group bested Atlanta’s season averages by several points on both ends of the floor while outscoring opponents by 7.7 points per 100 possessions.

GIVE AND GO: Assessing the offseason’s highs and lows

The success on the glass in those big lineups should follow Smith from Atlanta to Detroit, and his addition to one of the weakest wing rotations in the league should correspond with a notable improvement on both sides of the ball. Regardless of position, Smith will be the best defender for the Pistons at all times, while contributing more in total than any player who would otherwise fill the small forward slot.

It should go without saying, however, that the Pistons will face some immediate difficulty in trying to build around lineups that feature all three of Smith, Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond without the assets that were at the Hawks’ disposal. There are, at the least, two key Atlanta components that can’t yet be imitated in Detroit: Kyle Korver and Al Horford. The former is obvious; a lack of perimeter shooting made the Pistons’ offense awkward and constricted last season, as many of the top shooters on the roster were of merely of league-average quality. That hasn’t really changed this offseason. Having a single, immediate threat on the three-point line does wonders for offensive spacing when three non-shooting bigs are in play, but Detroit doesn’t yet have a player capable of filling that role. (Recently signed Chauncey Billups might be able to fill that role if healthy.)

The same goes for replicating Horford’s function, as his ability to work from the high post served as a complement to Smith’s low-block operations. With Horford essentially on the perimeter and the remaining big either setting screens for cutters or hovering on the weak side baseline, Smith had room in Atlanta to survey the floor and dominate opposing wings around the rim. Playing Smith as a power forward may limit his opportunities to force shots from the perimeter, but playing him on the wing can in some cases create an even more glaring mismatch. There are precious few NBA small forwards who have the strength and height to contend with Smith around the basket, which then fosters the kinds of double teams which can fuel a team’s greater offense.

This arrangement won’t work as efficiently without an accompanying big who can get by with jumpers at the top of the key — yet another asset that the Pistons don’t have. One might think Monroe is well-suited for a Horford-style role given his ability to make plays from the elbow, but he has nowhere near the level of mid-range shooting competence necessary to make that kind of placement work this coming season. Horford had an off-year last season, shooting-wise, but he still topped Monroe by 13 percent (43.7 percent relative to Monroe’s 30.7 percent) in mid-range field goal percentage, making any immediate comparison between them shaky at best.

Detroit will have to make do without a facilitating big, meaning that Smith is almost certain to appear a clumsy fit. There will be a lengthy feeling-out process by Pistons players and coaches alike, and in the meantime Detroit will likely endure a flood of gross, undue jumpers from Smith — just the kind of regrettable shot that he is ought to take. But there’s nothing about the notion of Smith as a small forward that is uniquely unsalvageable, provided that Dumars adds the right kinds of pieces around him.

There’s also no rush. Fretting over Smith’s fit on a team that’s still gathering assets and developing young talent is premature, especially considering that his very arrival opens up a greater breadth of options for the Pistons. If an offer eventually comes around for Monroe, he would now seem to be a much more expendable asset. If Monroe doesn’t show some much-needed defensive improvement over the next few seasons, then perhaps he could be primed for a move to the bench with Smith assuming his starting spot. Or, were Drummond to drift or regress from what made him so potent as a rookie, then the Pistons would have more or less the same options. Regardless of the exact course, simply having Smith around branches out the Pistons’ decision tree and creates leverage for a developing team with but a few high-level prospects.

Plus, it’s not as if signing Smith with the intention of playing him at small forward locks him into that slot for life. Detroit can gauge his effectiveness as a supersized wing and opt to fall back to other options if need be. If all else fails, Smith will still be of value to other teams even it it doesn’t work out in Detroit — giving the Pistons one more high-quality trade chip than they had previously.

Redundancy isn’t some great sin for teams in construction. Value is value, and Detroit paid a fair price to pick up a talented player, explosive defender and experimental component while the younger pieces on the roster develop.

Statistical support for this post provided by NBA.com.

20 comments
DanRutherford
DanRutherford

Here's something I can say as a Piston fan that I haven't said in a few years:

 I'm looking forward to a good season

21GB
21GB

It was thorough, but I he didn't point out how much PF Smith will probably play. Drummond has 0 chance of cracking 30 mpg as a huge 19 yr old. That means Monroe (33 mpg career high) will likely play a bulk of his minutes at Center still. (18+ mpg) That leaves starter minutes for Josh Smith at PF. 

The other thing I disagree about is Monroe in the high post. I think Monroe could easily end up better than Horford in the high post. He's stronger off the dribble and even a better passer. You can't compare FG% when Monroe essentially refused to take that Mid-range shot. The sample size is ridiculously small. Yes, you can't say Monroe can hit it until he does, but he's shown the ability to make it and dedicated this offseason to gaining confidence it and developing that skill. If he can, he will be a better high post player than Horford, because his post game in general is better and his skill set is even more versatile.. 

GTT
GTT

That's Joe Dumars? Whoa. Josh will be a great addition. He is a passionate player with a lot of talent ... shot selection not always being one of them. Wish he were still a Hawk.

djp9
djp9

The author hasn't watched much Piston basketball of course (then again I don't think many have the last few years). I also think he is missing several key points here. Sheed is now an assistant and there was no better team first teammate in the league. I think he can really help Smith bring a new level of contribution to his game. No one was better at sacrificing his own stats to do the little things to win than Sheed.

Billups too is back as a player and again another member of the team first Piston champions and if the post is crowded perhaps Mr.Big Shot will again up his range.  Monroe IS a better passer than Rob gives him credit for as well as being very competitive and team oriented and Drummond will benefit from less attention with better players around him.

lol 6marK6 I immediately thought that it looks like Joe should be putting a stairmaster or treadmill in his office.

TastesLikeChicken
TastesLikeChicken

As an Atlanta Hawks fan who has watched Josh extensively for multiple seasons, i have some disagreements with this article.  

1)  Josh is one of the worst volume jump shooters in the NBA over the last 5 seasons. 

2) Josh has NO RELIABLE LOW POST GAME.  Let me repeat that:  Josh has no reliable low post game. 

3)  Josh is a below average free throw shooter.

He is excellent as a finisher in transition, an above average passer, and a plus defender when he is motivated.  What he is NOT is a reliable go to option for scoring the ball at crunch time.  Josh got what he was worth from the Pistons based on today's NBA market.



OK
OK

"Could Josh Smith to the Pistons be one of the must underrated signings of the offseason?"

No.

Josh Smith is a Professional Brick Layer, a gunner to the Nth degree, a ball hog, a lousy passer, a horrible defender, and a complete punk. Smith has neither displayed the skills or traits of a leader nor an adult.

Smith is a waste of excessive athletic talent and a loser. Period.

Mahoney, fess up: Did Smith's agent, Smith's mama, or Joe Dumars pay you to write this crap?

6marK6
6marK6

Man, Dumars got fat!!!

MadeInDetroit
MadeInDetroit

I completely agree in that Smith's signing was underrated, and think he can work out for the team. Greg Monroe is actually one of the best passing big man in the game right now behind players like Pau Gasol. He is very underrated in that regard.

RobJohnson2
RobJohnson2

This is a great article. I agree with everything, but where you said "Detroit doesn't have a facilitating big". Monroe may not have a consistent jumpshot (yet) like Horford, but he is actually the better facilitator out of the high post. Few bigs today can pass out of the post like the Moose can. He's essentially another PG on the court the way he can dissect a defense with his passing.

21GB
21GB

@djp9 You can't talk enough about Sheed on Defense. On that side of the ball I totally agree with you. Now on offense I totally disagree. I think Sheed was effortless, not involved, played in stretches and took dozens of possessions off every game. And Sheed is so overrated in the post. He was actually very inefficient, that pretty fade fooled a lot of people, it didn't go in as much as people thought. Sheed was also a terrible finisher inside. People dont realize that, most of it was that he refused to go inside and get the ball, but he also struggled to finish if a defender was at the rim. He didn't have much feel for that part of the game, he was a high fly dunker early in his career and never developed feel for scoring around the rim. Funny thing, if Drummond wants to learn how to be dominant on offense, he should look no further than the guy he plays every day in practice. Monroe, though much less physically gifted than Drummond, takes every thing to the rim and has a bevy of moves and a feel for carving out shots in the trees. If Drummond had monroes game, he'd be Shaq. 

21GB
21GB

@TastesLikeChicken  Thats why I think all these fools in Detroit are stupid when they think we should get rid of Monroe. We need Monroe now more than ever. You can run an offense through Monroe, he's is incredibly smart and skilled, and incredibly productive and reliable. Monroe needs to get the ball first, then make Smith the finisher. When Smith gets stuck with it in the offense, he does not make the right decision. Monroe will still play a lot of Center. Drummonds not playing more than 30 mpg any year soon. He's huge. Smiths our PF, who may pose as a SF in the starting lineup. 

21GB
21GB

@OK Ha. Well you're dead wrong on several of your points says everyone, so time to stop pretending like you know anything about basketball. 

JoeCabot
JoeCabot

@OK Looks like being a brick laying, gunning, ball hogging punk loser with no defensive or leadership skills draws a pretty good gig and paycheck these days.   Too bad that being a ranting, whining cyber critic doesn't merit  the same salary.  If it did, Josh Smith might ask you to buy next time.

joshua33nelson
joshua33nelson

@OK I'm ok with taking a chance on him, the real downer to me is did Detroit have to pay him so freaking much?  

Zach
Zach

@joshua33nelson @OK Yes, they did have to pay him that. Josh Smith was the 3rd-best player on the free agent market, and the two above him (Paul & Howard) got max deals.

I've said this elsewhere, the biggest thing for Smith is to practice (this summer) and then limit himself (this season) to corner 3's. As a Pistons fan, I'm largely happy with the signing because I know Drummond/Monroe is not a 48-min. solution. Andre isn't conditioned for heavy minutes yet, and Monroe has defensive liabilities that sometimes need to be hidden for stretches. When one of them goes to the bench, Smith slides to the 4, and Singler or Middleton comes in as the 3--each has his own strengths. So Smith's 3/4 flexibility (like Tony Mitchell, who might turn into Josh Smith-lite) is a boon for Detroit.

21GB
21GB

@Zach @joshua33nelson @OK And I think 30 mpg for Drummond is a high estimate. I bet it ends up around 28, even if he gets in great shape. Look at history, guys that huge and that young its difficult to play huge minutes. 

21GB
21GB

@Zach @joshua33nelson @OK You're not wrong Zach, but I'd still prefer he continue to work on his post game though, I bet you he ends up playing mostly PF. Drummond C 30 mpg. Monroe C 18, PF 15. That leaves 33 mpg of PF unaccounted for. You seriously want us to give Jerebko those minutes?