How Detroit Pistons Can Make Sure Josh Smith's Arrival Actually Works
Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports
When the Detroit Pistons signed free-agent forward Josh Smith, the move was met with a fair amount of skepticism.
On one hand, he was the third-best player on the market, behind only Dwight Howard and Chris Paul. Some think that the acquisition will help bring in future big-name free agents (possibly in next summer's loaded class).
On the other, his natural position is power forward, and the Pistons already have two excellent up-and-coming big men, Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond. It's hard to justify spending $54 million on a third post player when there are still multiple holes on the roster.
There is no questioning Smith's talent; he's an elite athlete and borderline All-Star who plays solid basketball on both ends of the court.
But the Pistons and newly-hired head coach Maurice Cheeks will have to make several adjustments to maximize his production in Detroit.
Emphasize shot selection
Smith's questionable shot selection drew criticism during most of his time with the Hawks. Despite scoring near the rim better than almost anyone in the league, he too often settles for three-pointers and long two-pointers.
In 2012-13, he shot 70.3 percent from within five feet of the basket, eighth-best among players who took at least 100 such shots, per NBA.com. He has shot at least 63.9 percent from that range in each of the past six seasons.
He has been far less successful from behind the arc, where he is a career 28.3 percent shooter. He launched a career-high 2.6 threes per game in 2012-13, yet he only made 30.3 percent of them.
Even worse is his reliance on long two-pointers, the least efficient shot in basketball. He's a career 33.1 percent mid-range shooter, yet 30.8 percent of the shots he's taken have come from that distance, per NBA.com.
According to Neil Paine (ESPN Insider), that percentage of mid-range jumpers taken puts Smith in the upper quartile of players. That is a problem, since he just doesn't make enough of them to be effective.
Cheeks and the rest of the Pistons coaching staff have a tough task getting Smith to take higher-quality shots, but it's not impossible.
In 2009-10 he shot just seven three-pointers in all after taking 87 the season before. Paine discussed how that adjustment helped Smith to have one of the best seasons of his career:
This was a very good thing for both Smith and the Hawks -- by cutting back on his threes, he turned into a more efficient player (109.4 [offensive rating] vs. 103.5 in 2009), a more willing passer (he passed on 57% of his touches instead of 43%), a better offensive rebounder (9.0 [offensive rebound]% vs. 6.5 in 2009), and the Atlanta offense improved to become the NBA's 2nd-best during the regular season.
The Pistons need Smith to understand the importance of taking fewer outside shots, but they can help by running plays that get him attacking the basket.
His mobility makes him dangerous in the pick-and-roll, where he scored 1.01 points per play in 2012-13, according to Synergy Sports (subscription). He also excelled when cutting to the basket, scoring 1.22 points per play and shooting 70.3 percent.
Smith and Monroe will be the top two offensive options in Detroit this season. The Pistons will need him playing as efficiently as possible to improve an offense that ranked 22nd in offensive efficiency in 2012-13.
Surround him with shooters
They can help improve Smith's offensive efficiency even further by creating a rotation that surrounds him with as many shooters as possible.
That begins with the presumed starting frontcourt of Smith, Monroe and Drummond. The trio have plenty of potential on the defensive end, but offensively they will create a floor-spacing nightmare.
Last season, Monroe shot just 30.2 percent from outside the paint, and Drummond took only 22 total shots from that range. With those two anchored to the blocks, Smith will be pushed to the perimeter, and away from his strengths.
Even if he starts all three big men, Cheeks needs to minimize the trio's time on the court together to maximize floor spacing. It will open up room to operate in the post for them and driving lanes for their point guards.
When they do run the three-big lineup, non-shooters Rodney Stuckey and Will Bynum have to remain on the bench. Neither is even a career 30 percent shooter from three, and adding them to a lineup with Smith, Monroe and Drummond would stifle the offense even further.
Instead, playing Brandon Knight, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Chauncey Billups, Kyle Singler and Luigi Datome will make the lineup more balanced and help keep opposing defenses honest.
The more shooters around Smith, the better off he will be. He needs space to operate in the paint, and he is one of the better passing forwards in the league, averaging 4.2 assists last season.
Surrounding him with the right players will be crucial to his effectiveness on the offensive end.
Push the pace
The Pistons played at the ninth-slowest pace in the league during 2012-13, but they'll run more this year with Smith's athleticism injected into the lineup.
He may be one of the veterans on the roster, but at 27 years old, Smith can still fly up and down the court. He scored 1.12 points per play in transition for 2012-13, shooting 69.2 percent (Synergy).
His athleticism allows him to finish on the break, but his ability to act as a point-forward also allows him to push the ball himself periodically.
Outside of Billups and Monroe, the rest of the roster is made to run the court as well.
Knight, Caldwell-Pope and Drummond are all 21 or younger and have good speed for their position. Drummond finishes at the rim better than nearly anyone, and Caldwell-Pope has shown some ability in that area as well.
A Drummond/Smith pairing will immediately be one of the most athletic frontcourt duos in the NBA. A lineup featuring those two, Knight, Caldwell-Pope and Datome (who can all shoot and run the court extremely well) could score points in bunches.
The Pistons need to take big strides offensively to compete for a playoff spot, and running the court can be a great source of easy baskets, as the Denver Nuggets proved during the regular season.
It also fits perfectly with what Smith brings to the Pistons.
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