The Fundamentals: Pistons’ frontcourt still finding its way with Josh Smith
Josh Smith was never going to be a transformational piece for the Pistons, no matter the size of his contract. His was a signing of compilation, not completion, made to bolster Detroit’s overall talent base and expand its options. For a team that had stocked a few interesting young players with cap room to spare, the addition made decent sense. There was no disguising the fact that Smith was a less than perfect fit for the Pistons, but it’s understandable why president Joe Dumars would prioritize the acquisition of an immediate asset with possible extensions for Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond looming.
Yet the presence of those two big men is largely what has compelled coach Maurice Cheeks to shift Smith to the wing, a positional placement that has tended to draw out his most destructive instincts. Smith had mixed success as a small forward in Atlanta, but he blossomed when allowed to leverage his speed against power forwards and centers. He’s had that opportunity in spots with the Pistons, but has supplied 39 percent of the team’s minutes at small forward, per 82games.com, mainly by playing alongside Monroe and Drummond in a hulking frontcourt. Those three open every game for Detroit together, logging 318 of the team’s 821 total minutes as a trio.
As expected, the offense has caught a few snags when those three bigs share the floor. Smith has been an incredibly greedy — and impressively oblivious — three-point shooter, racking up 4.6 attempts per game despite hitting only 29 percent. Offensive clutter has resulted in a worrisome turnover rate, to which point guard Brandon Jennings is an all-too-frequent contributor. At times, Monroe, Smith or Drummond will seem to be in a position of advantage only to have it evaporate in a second, often as a result of opponents drifting away from Smith to further clog up the paint.
Yet through it all, the Pistons have managed above-average offensive efficiency by scoring as intended. Only the furiously paced 76ers have averaged more shot attempts in the restricted area this season, while only five teams are better than Detroit in converting from deep in the paint. Awkward as the Pistons’ big lineups might be at times, they set a baseline for interior domination and refresh the offense with frequent offensive rebounds. Detroit was bound to have hiccups as a revamped roster and new coach settled in, but the grouping of Monroe, Smith and Drummond has stabilized by playing to its size and strengths.
Interestingly, the Pistons’ defense — thought to be the surer source of improvement with Smith’s arrival — has been slower to catch on. One would think that a team trotting out the dynamic Smith along with two conventional bigs would at least be able to protect the rim and contest shots, but Detroit’s starting five was eaten alive on the perimeter in the first few weeks of the season. Over the last 10 games, though, the Pistons seem to have caught a rhythm. The clear point of demarcation was an injury-induced change to the starting five. With Chauncey Billups sidelined by tendinitis in his left knee, wiry rookie Kentavious Caldwell-Pope has assumed a spot in the starting backcourt.
That shift, among others, has made a fairly dramatic defensive difference. Despite not logging a single minute with the other starters during the first seven games of the season, Caldwell-Pope stepped in to provide more pressure and athleticism on the perimeter. Billups, 37, still has a reputation as a strong defender, but he shows his age when chasing opponents around screens and was a burden on Detroit’s pick-and-roll coverage. It wasn’t all his fault; Monroe and Drummond are frustratingly terrible at guarding the pick-and-roll without impeding the movement of the ball handler, which made Billups’ job that much more difficult. The Pistons attempted to compromise by having Billups (and many of their other guards) go under screens, though that only afforded opposing guards a safe pocket from which to pull up and shoot.
The entire arrangement was a mess, on top of Detroit’s more generally sloppy coverage through a tough patch of schedule. Billups’ tendinitis, though, forced Cheeks to insert a quicker, longer player into the starting lineup to contend with opposing guards. The Pistons’ defense hasn’t looked back since, as Smith, Jennings and Caldwell-Pope have played up and into ball handlers. Such an aggressive style makes the new starting five a bit vulnerable inside but far more effective in containing the perimeter. Check out the contrast in opponents’ shooting percentages between the initial starting lineup (with Billups) and the newest iteration (with Caldwell-Pope, or “KCP”):
The Pistons’ defensive rotations really aren’t that much cleaner than they were at the beginning of the season, but Detroit has managed to ramp up its effectiveness by chasing shooters off the three-point line, jumping passing lanes and pressuring ball handlers. It’s amazing how much length and size alone can do under those circumstances. By attacking the ball handler and forcing him to make a decision under duress, Detroit’s bigs are in a position to deflect or intercept passes. Smith does just that here to disrupt a pick-and-roll, after Jennings rushed the sequence by fighting to get over the screen:
In the 10 games since the Pistons switched lineups and began dialing up the pressure on the perimeter, Drummond, Smith and Monroe have averaged a combined 5.5 steals per game. Detroit has cuffed its opponents by creating turnovers: Of the 25 lineups that have played 100 minutes or more this season, Detroit’s new starting unit ranks third in points allowed per possession. With that group turning opponents over on 31.2 percent of their possessions, avoiding fouls at a remarkable rate and locking down the defensive glass to avoid giving away extra scoring opportunities, the Pistons have seemingly found a way to survive their own over-helping and inconsistent rotations. They’ve leaned into the gambling tendencies of players like Smith and Jennings, in a sense, and had enough success in doing so to both undercut opponents and fuel their own fast breaks.
To put things in perspective, all of this improvement in Detroit’s most-used lineup has yielded only a 5-5 record over the last 10 games, despite a favorable schedule. The Hawks were the only .500 team of that recent bunch, but, to the Pistons’ credit, they did hold opponents to a far more acceptable defensive standard relative to the caliber of offense faced. In that initial seven-game stretch with Billups in the mix, Detroit allowed opponents to beat their respective season scoring averages by 5.6 points per 100 possessions. Since then, the Pistons have held foes to just a plus-1.6 margin — hardly world-beating, but significantly more tolerable.
And given the inherent complications of fitting Smith, Monroe and Drummond into a workable arrangement, “tolerable” is a fair standard. The Pistons have predictably fared better with just two of those three bigs on the court, at times catching lightning in the offensive pairing of Monroe and Drummond or demolishing opponents defensively with the duo of Drummond and Smith. Standard basketball operations in today’s NBA just come more naturally that way, without the compromises in coverage or crowding in the paint. Yet this is the path that the Pistons have chosen to pursue, and it can work to some extent in the right context.
That’s about as far as it goes, as playing Smith, Drummond and Monroe together at once courts both strength and vulnerability. Such redundant construction is an invitation for caveat; even Detroit’s improved first-unit defense can be broken down with smart ball movement and penetration, and its offense seized up by further congesting the interior. This team is fundamentally solvable — not so much as to fall apart against lesser opponents, but easy enough prey for more sophisticated ones. Success for these Pistons, then, is all a matter of degrees.
NEXT PAGE: Paul George’s ascent, Luol Deng stepping up, and Golden State’s struggles without Andre Iguodala.