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