To this point, the Josh Smith Experience in the Motor City has sputtered. After signing a four-year deal worth $54 million, Smith had the worst season of his career, piling up career lows in a number of categories. In the span of a year, Smith went from a free-agent commodity to a contract that seemingly couldn't be dumped by Detroit.
But things aren't destined to be doom-and-gloom in Detroit forever. The acquisition of head coach and team president Stan Van Gundy is a move that could turn Smith away from this declining path and back to being one of the more dangerous two-way players in basketball.
It's incredibly important for Smith to understand his role and the system he's in. Although he's always been prone to jacking up bad long twos, Smith can tank a team's chances when he's left to his own devices.
It's not that he's incapable of being an efficient scorer. In one glorious season for the Atlanta Hawks in 2009-2010, Smith attempted seven threes all year and shot over 50 percent from the field for the only time in his 10-year career.
For comparison's sake, last year Smith shot 265 threes and made just 26.4 percent of those attempts.
While Smith is responsible for his shot selection, you can understand why he might feel the need to take so many looks from deep. In a space-deprived frontcourt with Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe and very little perimeter shooting elsewhere, Smith might have felt the need to take the onus on himself.
After an offseason where the Pistons brought in proven shooters like Jodie Meeks and Caron Butler, Smith might be able to get back inside just a touch more, even if the logjam up front hasn't really been solved.
Here's Kurt Helin at ProBasketballTalk:
If Van Gundy can get Smith to play closer to the basket, he should get votes for coach of the year. It would be a big help for the Pistons’ offensive efficiency — let Jodie Meeks, Caron Butler and the other guards (except you, Brandon Jennings) shoot the threes.
Of course, if Smith starts playing closer to the basket as he should then you get into the spacing issues of having him, Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe all on the court at the same time. None of them can space the floor, which makes the Pistons much easier to defend. Which is why Smith’s natural inclination to step out and space the floor with his jumper kicks in, except for the whole “he can’t make that” problem.
The thing is, Smith is capable of spreading the floor in unconventional ways. He's a threat to slash and kick from the perimeter, and his passing from the high post is superb. He's a much smarter offensive player than he gets credit for, even if he has an unwarranted amount of confidence in his jumper.
Can Smith work in big minutes next to Monroe and Drummond? Last year would certainly lead you to believe the answer is no, but that's underselling Van Gundy's capabilities as a coach. Even though he often gets pegged as a system guy, Van Gundy has had success with multiple different kinds of rosters and personnel. He'll build his offensive system around the talent in place.
And Smith, despite the warts, is a great talent.
Here's what Van Gundy said about Smith, via Keith Langlois of the Pistons' official website:
"He’s not only a very willing passer, but an outstanding passer,” Van Gundy says of Smith, who joined Caldwell-Pope at the same Atlanta gym focusing on upper-body weight work every other day over the summer. “I think it’s the best part of Josh’s game. Probably the most overlooked part of his game – his ability to create for teammates.”
Smith knows – and Van Gundy emphasized it to him, just in case – that a positive start to that evolutionary process is critical to the season ahead. It might not necessarily be reflected in wins and losses out of the gate, but the establishment of a winning culture – and the eradication of whatever negative energy lingers – is foremost on Smith’s mind.
Some people might not want to hear this, but it's a little more appealing to fire up a jumper than invite contact when you're down big in the middle of a losing season. With a fresh start and a more realistic chance of winning with a proven coach, Smith may be more willing to put the ball on the ground, slash and create for shooters who can actually knock down shots.
He also may be more willing to play power forward, a position he's looked much more natural at over the course of his career.
Here's what Smith told Langlois:
"I’m ready to play whatever position is asked of me,” said Smith, noticeably thicker in the chest and shoulders, in his first day back at the Pistons practice facility on Tuesday. “But I’m going to play a lot of (power forward) and that was my main focus on being able to get more in the weight room and put some more muscle on my body to be able to withstand that physicality in the paint.
"I played that position so much, so long in the league that I know how big you have to be in order to be able, night in and night out, to withstand that impact and that physical nature inside the paint."
Will some minutes-juggling be required by Van Gundy? Of course. He'll have his three best players essentially sharing right around 96 combined available minutes at power forward and center. Some creativity will be required.
But that's the whole reason why bringing on Van Gundy makes sense. Smith has a legitimate chance at playing much better this season, and with his stock back on the rise, the Pistons might be more inclined to move him. Or maybe the Pistons are content with putting Greg Monroe on the backburner after he struck out in restricted free agency and could be leaving next year anyway.
There are a few different ways this could play out, but it's foolish to slam the door on Smith having a successful career in Detroit. There's time to make this work, and the right man for the job will have the chance to do just that.