Josh Smith needs to his younger teammates by example.
The former Atlanta Hawk was signed in free agency to provide an immediate boost on both ends of the court to a team that hasn't had a winning record since the 2007-08 season. He'll also be asked to take on a major leadership role for one of the league's youngest rosters.
For the Pistons to reach their potential, Smith will have to be dialed in all season long. He must make a conscious effort to take good shots and be willing to defend top players on opposing teams.
With a salary of $13.5 million per year, Smith is being paid like a franchise player. The Pistons need him to play like one this season.
With the Pistons starting three big men this season, Smith's offensive versatility will be key in minimizing potential spacing issues.
At least at the start of each half, Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe will be on the court with Smith, pushing him to the perimeter. As a career 28.3 percent shooter from behind the arc, he has little value as a spot-up shooter. But he has other skills that can keep their offense from stagnating.
For a big man, Smith is an excellent passer and ball-handler. He has the ability to grab a defensive rebound and push the ball down the court himself, putting pressure on opposing defenses before they can get set in the half court.
He can also use those same skills to run big-big pick-and-rolls, either with Drummond or Monroe. Smith averaged 4.2 assists with the Hawks last season, and his pick-and-rolls with frontcourt mate Al Horford gave opposing defenses fits.
The most important thing for Smith is to not settle for outside jumpers. In the only two seasons he had a PER above 20—in 2009-10 and 2011-12—he shot fewer than two three-pointers per game. In 2012-13 he shot a career-high 2.6 per game and had a PER of 17.82.
It's worth noting that Smith took a higher number of outside jumpers in losses than wins last season for the Hawks. According to NBA.com, 17 percent of his total shots were "above the break threes" in losses, against just 10.8 percent of his total shots in wins.
That, in part, contributed to Smith averaging three points fewer (18.9 versus 15.9) and shooting 8.6 percent less from the field (50.6 versus 42) in losses than in wins a year ago.
Smith can put pressure on opposing defenses in a variety of ways and is one of the best in the league at finishing near the rim. But the Pistons will slump offensively when he's not in attack mode.
On the other end of the court, the Pistons will need Smith to be their most versatile defender, if not their best overall defensive player.
He has a rare combination of size, strength and athleticism that allows him to competently defend almost any NBA player. From a physical standpoint, he fits perfectly into the idea of position-less basketball that is becoming more popular in the league.
If the Pistons want to play all three of their bigs for more than just a handful of minutes per game—and especially in crunch time—Smith is the key. When opposing teams choose to go small, he's the only one of the trio that can match up with a wing player.
And when Drummond heads to the bench, Smith will have to step in as the rim-protector. Monroe has been a defensive liability his entire career and has averaged less than one block in each of his three NBA seasons.
Of the top 13 teams last season in points allowed per 100 possessions, 12 made the playoffs, per NBA.com. No playoff team ranked worse than 18th. The Pistons ranked 23rd.
To make the playoffs they have to make major improvements on that end of the court, and no player will be asked to do more in that regard than Smith.
Smith's nine seasons in Atlanta were rocky at times, but he will need to be a leader and role model for this youthful roster.
Billups, 37, is one of the great leaders in the league today. But after him, Smith has the most NBA experience on the roster. According to the Detroit Free Press, he understands the need to share his knowledge with teammates.
“It’s just showing them things that I’ve went through,” Smith said. “This is my 10th year. I’ve seen and done a lot of things, and all I can do is help and mentor the young guys and get them through situations that, you know, it was rough patches for me at their ages.”
Which player is most important to the Pistons' success this season?
It's easy to say the right things in training camp, especially with all buzz surrounding this team. It'll be another thing for Smith to be a positive leader when the team hits rough patches throughout the season.
The Pistons are a talented team with playoff aspirations in 2013-14. Along with Billups, it will be on Smith's shoulders to show them what it takes to get there.