Although they were rarely mentioned as a likely destination, the Detroit Pistons were able to pull in one of the most talented free agents available this summer, Josh Smith. The Pistons have had a huge hole in production at small forward over the past few seasons and, at a superficial glance, Smith would seem like a perfect solution. His new teammates have already been talking about his ability to contribute from the perimeter and help balance their offense. There's only one problem—Smith isn't really a small forward anymore.
He is often labelled as one, but this is mostly reputation persisting. Over the past three to four seasons Smith has slowly migrated to power forward. The fact that he made just 31.0% of all of his shot attempts from outside the restricted area last season goes a long way towards explaining this move.
According to 82games.com, Smith played nearly 5 times as many minutes at power forward last season as he did at small forward. His PER as a small forward was 16.1, significantly less than the 18.5 he put up in his minutes at power forward. Going back to the 2011-2012 season we see the same thing. With Al Horford missing so much time with injury, 82games.com calculated that essentially zero of Smith's minutes were spent at small forward.
The problems with Smith at small forward come mostly at the offensive end. He's a reasonably reliable ball handler, but is much better in transition or facing up just outside the lane than he is creating on the perimeter or making decisions in the pick-and-roll. But the real problem is his inconsistent outside shooting and how it ends up clogging the middle of the floor. Let's look at a few examples.
In this image, Al Horford is posting up on the right block with Zaza Pachulia at the elbow and Smith spotting up on the weak side. Both Pachulia and Smith's defenders have a foot in the lane making things extremely difficult for Horford. Even if he is able to make a move to the front of the rim, he'll likely find an extra defender or two waiting to challenge the shot.
In this second image, the Hawks are running a high pick-and-roll with Lou Williams and Pachulia. This time Ivan Johnson is on the floor in place of Horford, but we see the same problem. Both Smith and Johnson's defenders are essentially in the lane. Even if Williams is able to turn the corner, there are two bigs waiting to rotate over and Devin Harris won't have to be left open in the corner. Rudy Gay, who is covering Smith, is also waiting to slide up on Pachulia should he roll free.
This was a standard problem for the Hawks offense early on last season. When Smith was on the floor with two other bigs, he inevitably found himself on the wings. NBA defenses simply don't respect his jump shot and were more than happy to collapse into the lane on penetration or post-up opportunities. A long jump shot by Smith was generally a low-value proposition for the Hawks offense and one that defenses were more than happy to surrender.
In the 303 minutes that Smith, Horford and Pachulia played together for the Hawks last season, their offense mustered just 100.6 points per 100 possessions. That's a fairly sizable step down from their season-long average of 102.7. A decline of 2.1 points per 100 possessions may not sound like a big difference, but that margin was essentially what separated the Hawks offense from that of the Chicago Bulls. That would be the same Chicago Bulls offense that featured Nate Robinson, Marco Belinelli and Kirk Hinrich as some of its primary weapons.
All of these offensive spacing problems created by Smith at small forward wouldn't even be on the radar if the Pistons didn't already have two immensely talented frontcourt players, who also couldn't shoot from the perimeter last season. Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe, combined, made just 30.3% of their shots from outside the restricted area. Monroe's passing and ability to put the ball on the floor allowed him to function reasonably efficiently out to the elbows, despite this lack of outside shooting, but both he and Drummond essentially do their best work in the lane.
Drummond and Monroe are probably both better classified as centers, but the Pistons seemed committed to working on playing them together last year, and just over a third of Drummond's minutes on the season came alongside Monroe. The team's defense was significantly improved when they played together, surrendering 102.9 points per 100 possessions, much better than their season-long average of 105.6.
But on offense they managed just 100.9 points per 100 possessions, about the same as what the Hawks put up with Smith at small forward, and a woefully inadequate number for a lineup to be used regularly for a team with playoff aspirations. But the potential benefits of playing the two together make it an experiment worth pursuing.
At the end of the regular season I broke down some video of the Pistons and looked at how they might be able to create an efficient offense with both Drummond and Monroe on the floor at the same time. Here's an example of one set they have used to great effect. Here, Drummond and Monroe set dual pin-down screens to set up a high pick-and-roll between Monroe and Kyle Singler. Singler turns the corner easily and dumps the ball off to Drummond for the dunk.
Here's another example. In this case, the Pistons used Monroe and Drummond to set double screens for Tayshaun Prince as he curls all the way around the floor. Monroe trails Prince and receives the ball back at the elbow, making the pass to Drummond, who has made the duck-in to a wide open lane.
The key elements in these sets, and all the really successful ones I looked at, were lots of screening and movement from Drummond and Monroe, as well as wings who could space the floor with shooting or attack close-outs off the dribble. In the two plays we just looked at, Smith would be filling the role of Prince and Singler. Although he's a very talented offensive player, the things the Pistons need from their wings to make these twin tower sets work just don't play to Smith's strengths.
If you look at those two videos and feel that Smith is fully capable of making those plays, keep in mind that he would be defended much differently in those sets, either with his man going under the screen or having the big man retreat into the lane, daring him to shoot the mid-range jumper.
In a half-court set, Monroe is most comfortable working from the elbow and both Smith and Drummond are at their best working the baseline. There just simply isn't enough space on the floor to have all three of those players inhabiting their most advantageous offensive positions together without irreparably clogging the lane.
The simple solution is just not to play Smith, Monroe and Drummond together. Making Smith a full-time power forward lets the Pistons space the floor with three shooters and frees up a pair of bigs to work around the rim. A front court rotation featuring a trio as talented as this one is a huge weapon, even if they need to be rotated onto the floor in pairs.
However, it feels a little self-defeating to move forward with a long term plan that dictates your three best players can't be on the floor together at the same time. Smith's defensive abilities certainly bring flexibility, but his offensive limitations may tighten the Piston's rotation more than one would initially think.
In the end, adding talent like Smith is a move worth making, but with an increase in talent and expectations comes an increase in the level of difficulty it takes to pull all the parts together.
Statistical support for this story from NBA.com