How Will Detroit Pistons Solve Their Obvious Josh Smith Conundrum?

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How Will Detroit Pistons Solve Their Obvious Josh Smith Conundrum?
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The Detroit Pistons may well go into the 2014-15 season with the same three-man frontcourt core that they employed throughout the previous go-round, even if it didn't exactly experience much success. 

Andre Drummond is still the future of the franchise. He's not going anywhere. 

But the fates of Greg Monroe and Josh Smith are still up in the air, with varying degrees of up-ness. The former is a restricted free agent who has yet to sign an offer sheet and could still end up playing for the qualifying offer before becoming an unrestricted player next summer, and the latter has now been assured by Stan van Gundy that he's "likely" to remain with the team. Per Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski

Detroit Pistons president and coach Stan Van Gundy reached out to forward Josh Smith to tell him that reports of the franchise engaging in substantive trade talks with Sacramento centered on Smith have been inaccurate and – barring an unexpected turn of events – Smith will be in training camp with the Pistons this fall, league sources told Yahoo Sports.

Should all three return—an assumption we're operating under for the duration of this analysis—the Pistons have to do some serious thinking. 

Smoove's presence in particular is a puzzling prospect, as he was the one who drew the most negative attention in 2013-14—and for good reason. Playing him—or this triumvirate—in the same manner once more simply can't be an option. 

But what's the solution? 

 

Strict Ban on 3-Point Shooting

Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

If you take Smith's three-point stroke away from him, he was actually a valuable player. 

In fact, let's do exactly that. 

With the triples removed from the equation, Smith would have averaged 13.7 points, 6.8 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 1.4 steals and 1.4 blocks per game while shooting 46.2 percent from the field, 0 percent beyond the arc (obviously) and 53.2 percent from the charity stripe. Other than the final percentage, those are solid numbers. 

Plus, they'd get even better. 

If Smoove weren't allowed to fire away from beyond the arc, he'd spend more time using his jaw-dropping athleticism, excelling around the rim and bringing his scoring average back up to par. He's best-suited for playing on the blocks and as a cutter, not standing around and waiting to spot up so that he can clang another shot off the rim. 

It's worth noting exactly how bad he was at perimeter shooting in 2013-14.

His 26.4 percent clip from downtown while taking 3.4 attempts per game gave him a historically awful combination. According to Basketball-Reference.com, only two players have ever taken more than three attempts per game and failed to hit 27 percent of them in a qualified season—Mookie Blaylock and Antoine Walker, though the latter did so twice with the Boston Celtics

The problem is that Smith thinks he's a three-point shooter, even if he's not. 

"I just play basketball. I'm a basketball player. People try to throw statistics in there. I'm not one to look at where I am on the court (when I shoot)," he told USA Today's Jeff Zillgitt in mid-January. "I'm confident in each and every play I make. I don't think about it. I just play and play with confidence."

That's what's wrong, in a nutshell.

So if Smoove isn't going to think about what's best for him on the court, he should have someone do it for him. 

If he'll insist on firing away from the perimeter, sit him on the pine after every shot, even if it goes in; provide reinforcement based on the process, not the results. Eventually, the message will get through, as Smith is still a guy who genuinely enjoys playing basketball. 

I'd tell you what the results would look like, but I really can't. After all, Smith had only a single game in which he recorded zero three-point attempts during his first season with the Pistons, and that sample is way too small to draw any conclusions. 

That said, he did shoot only seven three-pointers during the 2009-10 season with the Atlanta Hawks. That year, he posted the second-highest PER of his career and actually convinced fans of the franchise that he had a ridiculous ceiling. 

Of course, Detroit can try avoiding the problem further by carefully monitoring the rotation. 

 

3-Man Rotation at Power Forward and Center

USA TODAY Sports

Sets featuring Smith, Monroe and Drummond on the court really don't work. 

According to lineup data from NBA.com, that three-man core was outscored by 2.4 points during the average game. Per 100 possessions, they were topped by 6.7 points, and that's a horrific mark for a group of three high-quality players. 

Keep in mind that the Pistons, as a whole, were outscored by 3.8 points per 100 possessions, according to Basketball-Reference.com

Smith, Monroe and Drummond were three of the four best players on the Detroit roster last season, with Brandon Jennings finishing up the group. It's obviously a toxic combination when a lineup with that much relative talent is nearly twice as bad as the team's overall mark, especially when the team is already struggling. 

Something has to give. But what? 

Strength at Each Position
SF PER SF PER Against PF PER PF PER Against C PER C PER Against
Andre Drummond N/A N/A N/A N/A 24.7 19.2
Greg Monroe N/A N/A 18.3 21.2 20.6 17.2
Josh Smith 11.5 14.8 17.8 15.3 N/A N/A

82games.com

Well, that's interesting. 

Drummond only plays center; Monroe is far better at center than power forward; Smith is far better at power forward than small forward.

Obviously, those don't all work together. 

Fortunately, though, they don't all have to, because Van Gundy is perfectly capable of using substitutions to his advantage. There are 96 available minutes per game at power forward and center, which is enough to give each of the three players 32 minutes during the average outing. 

Nowhere is it written that they all have to start. 

Hypothetically, Monroe could begin the game on the bench, allowing Smith and Drummond to each play their natural positions. After a while, Monroe subs in for Drummond, which keeps the two bigs on the floor at their best spots in the lineup. 

Then it gets problematic, though. 

Monroe would still have to play next to Drummond at some point in order to keep everything even, though it's also possible that combination is less toxic when surrounded by shooters. In fact, it's probable, as defenses would no longer be able to collapse around the paint-bound bigs, seeing as they'd have to focus on the perimeter marksmen. 

Basketball-Reference.com shows that Detroit finished No. 22 in three-pointers attempted during the 2013-14 season, a number made even worse when accompanied by a three-point percentage only better than that boasted by the Philadelphia 76ers

USA TODAY Sports

Defenses were given no reason to do anything but compress around the bigs.

Before we focus on how that's changing, though, it's worth answering one more key question: Would these players, Monroe in particular, accept a less-glamorous role that involves coming off the bench and losing the "starter" designation? 

"I value myself as a starter, but when it comes down to winning, I'll do anything it takes to win," Isaiah Thomas told the Associated Press, via ESPN, about his new role with the Phoenix Suns. "I want to be on a winning team ... At the end of the day, we're going to play with each other, no matter who starts and who comes off the bench. It's about winning. The individual success will come."

Not every player is willing to undergo that type of sacrifice, but some are. After seasons filled with losing, perhaps Monroe will fall into that category of players who value winning above all else. 

Better yet, everyone will. 

There's no guarantee everyone will be happy if asked to make such sacrifices, but it's worth trying. Van Gundy doesn't have many other options if he's keeping all three bigs on the roster, as they clearly don't work well together. 

But how about those shooters?

 

Surround with Spacing

USA TODAY Sports

When SVG achieved such great levels of success with the Orlando Magic, it was because he was surrounding Dwight Howard with one shooter after another. Defenses essentially had to pick their poison, either focusing on stopping D12 in the paint and letting the snipers beat them or closing out on all three-point attempts and letting Howard post monstrous stats in one-on-one situations. 

This isn't the exact same scenario, but it's likely Van Gundy will employ the same basic principle—if you're going to have two bigs on the court who thrive in the paint, the rest of the team better be able to shoot.

In fact, as Mike Payne of Detroit Bad Boys explains, playing with two in and three out might be ideal for this team: 

The traditional recipe for championship contenders sticks to the 2-in/3-out formula that represents just about every winner in recent NBA history.  The "2-in" usually includes a defensive specialist and a scorer, from Gasol to Bynum, Garnett to Perkins, Wallace to Wallace.  Every once in a while, you get that one special player who can do both -- guys like Shaq and Duncan.  Around these guys, however, their frontcourt counterparts were largely traditional. Is there any good reason to try the 1-in/4-out in Detroit, given the outcome in Orlando and the traditional recipe for frontcourt success? 

Now it's time for some good news. 

Detroit's offseason basically revolved around lining up players who are going to be capable of spreading the court out. The team paid a hefty sum to Jodie Meeks, who emerged last year as one of the NBA's best shooters, and also added Caron Butler, Cartier Martin and D.J. Augustin. 

Let's take a gander at how each shot from beyond the arc last season: 

3-Point Marksmen
3PA 3P%
D.J. Augustin 4.7 40.1
Caron Butler 4.4 39.4
Cartier Martin 2.6 39.1
Jodie Meeks 5.2 40.1

That gives these Pistons a whole new dimension, as does the expected growth of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, last year's first-round pick.

Fernando Medina/Getty Images

KCP, fresh out of Georgia, struggled during his rookie season, but he fared quite well during the Orlando Summer League, averaging a league-best 24.0 points with 7.4 rebounds and 1.6 assists per game. Though he shot only 33.3 percent from beyond the arc, he showed flashes of ability from downtown—flashes that seem legitimate given his prowess in Stegeman Coliseum.

Plus, as Bleacher Report's Jonathan Wasserman notes, three-point jumpers weren't all he brought to the table, even when operating from the perimeter: 

Following his debut, Caldwell-Pope went for 30 points against the Memphis Grizzlies, 26 against the Miami Heat and 26 against the Boston Celtics. He put on a perimeter-scoring clinic with pull-up, step-back and deep, spot-up jumpers. And when the lane was available, he showcased his ability to attack in line drives. 

Caldwell-Pope should be in line for an increased role, but the Pistons now have a handful of players who can help space the court for their bigs, even if they occasionally had to overpay for them. 

Now, instead of desperately hoping some player is capable of knocking down a triple or two, the Pistons have to figure out how to get all of their shooters onto the floor. All things considered, that's a rather nice problem to have. 

Will the Pistons make the playoffs in 2014-15?

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By always keeping a couple floor-spacers on the court, properly rotating the bigs and convincing Smoove—by any means necessary—that he can't keep hoisting up perimeter jumpers, the Pistons could very well assert themselves back into the playoff picture, a place they haven't been since Allen Iverson, Rip Hamilton and Tayshaun Prince led them in 2008-09.  

Smith, talented as he may be, is a complication and a conundrum; he doesn't have to be an anchor. 

 

What's your plan for the Pistons? Let me know on Twitter and Facebook. 

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