With the addition of Smith to their existing frontcourt of Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond, the Pistons appeared ready to make the playoffs and dominate the paint with one of the NBA's biggest frontcourts.
While they have had offensive success on in the paint—with more baskets in the restricted area than any other team, per NBA.com—it hasn't necessarily translated to wins. The Pistons have spent most of this season shooting below .500 from the floor, and only one of their wins has come against a team with a current winning record.
A big part of the problem has been the way the three aforementioned Pistons have fit on the court together. Drummond has been excellent thus far, but Monroe's scoring and assist numbers are down from 2012-13. Smith is playing the least-efficient basketball of his career at small forward with a PER below 13. His career low was 15.46 as a rookie.
Detroit's starting unit of Brandon Jennings, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Smith, Monroe and Drummond has actually been quite good defensively, allowing 95.9 points per 100 possessions. By comparison, the San Antonio Spurs' second-ranked defense gives up points at the same rate.
But that same Pistons lineup has been miserable on the other end, scoring just 95.4 points per 100 possessions—the same rate as the Charlotte Bobcats' 29th-ranked offense.
The Pistons seem prepared to continue playing all three bigs together, but if things don't pick up soon, changes may have to be made. The obvious move would be to move one of the three to the bench, but which one?
*All statistics compiled from NBA.com and updated as of Nov. 26 unless otherwise noted.
Why Drummond Needs to Start
While Monroe and Smith have been starters for nearly their entire careers, Drummond was still coming off the bench just last season. However, beyond his familiarity with a reserve role, there is no reason to remove Drummond from the starting lineup.
The 20-year-old center has already proven to be one of the league's better big men in just his second year. He's leading the league in field-goal percentage, ranks in the top five in rebounding average and his PER ranks among the top 15 in the league.
He's also the most important piece of the Pistons' stingy defense. He is one of just seven players in the league averaging at least 1.4 blocks and one steal per game, and his 22.8 percent rebound rate is second in the NBA among players who play at least 10 minutes per game.
While a Smith-Monroe combo could potentially be very potent offensively in the post, there's just no way it would be worth moving the best player on the roster to the bench.
Why Monroe Needs to Start
While Drummond is Detroit's defensive stalwart in the paint, it's Monroe who anchors the offense from the block.
At 23 years old, Monroe is one of the few young low-post scorers in the league. He's averaging 14 points per game, almost exclusively from the paint or at the line, but what makes him work so well with Drummond is his passing ability. Monroe sees the court very well for a big man, averaging at least two assists in each of the last three seasons. That's very useful when playing alongside a big man who can't create his own shot.
Where Monroe has developed the most to become a better fit next to Drummond is on the defensive end. According to 82games.com, Monroe gave up a PER of 16 to opposing power forwards in 2012-13. This season, he has held the league's power forwards to a PER of 12.6—more than two points below the league average.
If Drummond were to move to the bench, Monroe would move back to center, where he is a significantly worse defender. By playing him alongside Drummond, the Pistons can get the most out Monroe on both ends of the court.
Why Smith Makes Sense Off the Bench
At this point in the season, the evidence is stacked against the possibility that Smith can play full-time at small forward. While he is the highest-paid and most-experienced of the the trio, it makes the most sense for Smith to come off the bench.
Regardless of which big would move to the bench, Kyle Singler would be the likely choice to slide into the starting lineup at small forward. Meanwhile, the Jennings, Caldwell-Pope, Singler, Monroe and Drummond lineup has been extremely effective for the Pistons, albeit in limited minutes.
That five-man lineup has been Detroit's second-most effective unit thus far. outscoring opponents by 21.5 points per 100 possessions. With three outside shooters, Monroe operating on the left block and Drummond protecting the paint, it gives the Pistons good balance on both sides of the ball.
With those players starting, Smith could combine with Rodney Stuckey and Will Bynum to form one of the best offensive bench units in the NBA. They would have the athleticism to score in transition, and in the half-court, a Smith-Stuckey pick-and-roll would be difficult to stop for opposing backups.
The biggest challenge to making it work would be in getting Smith to buy into the idea that it would be best for him to come off the bench after starting all but 23 games in his career. Even after being benched for one game earlier in the season, coach Maurice Cheeks told MLive.com that Smith wouldn't move to the bench.
"Come on, Josh is one of our top players," he said. "So he's not going to be on that bench. You know, things happen."
Still, there are roughly 30 minutes per game where Monroe or Drummond are on the bench, and Smith could take all those minutes. At the end of games, all three could play alongside Jennings and Stuckey for Detroit's best unit, which has outscored opponents by 23.9 points per 100 possessions.
The season is still young and the Pistons will likely continue trying to make a rotation work that includes starting all three talented big men. But if things don't begin to click, it should be the veteran who does what's best for the team and takes a seat.
*Jakub Rudnik covers the Detroit Pistons for B/R. Follow him on Twitter.
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