The Curious Case of Josh Smith, the NBA's Most Unique Franchise Savior

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The Curious Case of Josh Smith, the NBA's Most Unique Franchise Savior
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Years from now, NBA historians will tell a fascinating tale, of the wild, winding odyssey of Josh Smithof the lives he touched, the fates he altered and the brows he furrowed—if only the historians can explain what happened, how it happened and what the heck it all means.

Because, frankly, we've never seen anything quite like this, and we may never again. To review:

  • The woebegone Detroit Pistons waive Smith, their highest-salaried player, in late December, paying him $27 million just to go away.
  • Three teams with title hopes—Dallas, Houston and the Los Angeles Clippers—scramble to sign Smith. 
  • The Rockets prevail, proclaiming Smith a key addition to their rotation.
  • The Pistons, who were 5-23 with Smith, promptly win seven straight games without him.
  • In the immediate aftermath, NBA analysts work themselves into knots trying to make sense of it all.

The Pistons are winning because Josh Smith is gone. No, it's not that simple. Wait, maybe it is. Sort of.

The Josh Smith saga? It's weird. But the key participants all seem pretty happy.

"I thought it was a win-win," chirped Pistons president and coach Stan Van Gundy.   

"It's been sort of win-win so far," said Rockets general manager Daryl Morey.

"I feel very blessed," said Smith. "I haven't really stopped smiling."

And why not? The once-woeful Pistons have won nine of 10 games without Smith and have moved within striking distance of a playoff berth in the Eastern Conference.

The Rockets are 7-4 since signing Smith, who has bolstered their second unit's defense.

Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images

And Smith? He's now playing with his childhood friend Dwight Howard, with a chance to contend for a championship and mend his tattered reputation as a clueless gunner without a conscience.

"I'm willing to sacrifice, for whatever it takes in order for us to get wins," Smith said, a statement that his coaches in Detroit and Atlanta would surely have liked to hear.

Teams have dumped pricey players before and benefited from their absences. Tarnished players have found second lives before. But the Josh Smith case is truly unique.

Last season, the Toronto Raptors thrived after dumping Rudy Gay, but they traded him and received several key players in return. Gay landed with another losing team, in Sacramento, which did not tangibly benefit.

Stephon Marbury was cut by the New York Knicks in 2009, with an $18 million buyout, and signed with the contending Boston Celtics. But Marbury's contract was due to expire, anyway. There was no major competition to sign him. The Knicks were no better without him, and the Celtics no better with him.

Twenty-one players have been waived under the NBA's amnesty provision, and some later joined contenders (notably, Chris Andersen, going from Denver to Miami). But amnestied players are wiped from the salary cap, a benefit Detroit did not receive. And because amnesty waivers are made in the summer, no other team could see an immediate, positive impact.

No, Josh Smith stands alone, a 6'9" tower of contradictions and perplexity—the key to one lousy team's turnaround (by his absence) and one elite team's title hopes (by his presence).

When this conundrum is put to Morey, an analytics whiz and eminently logical person, he simply laughs.

"For me, it's not that difficult," Morey said. "He's been an elite defender in this league. Maybe he was having a tough year in Detroit. I don't know what went into that. But when you're in a competition of 30 (teams), especially a competition in the West, you've got to get talent, you've got to take chances on guys."

Morey adds, without hesitating, "Honestly, I don't think Josh Smith is much of a chance."

Unstated: If Smith fails to fit in, the Rockets can simply cut him, and his modest $2 million salary. But the Rockets seem quite happy to keep him for the long haul.

USA TODAY Sports

The Pistons cited no particular issues with the 29-year-old Smith, save for the fact that he was a bad fit with their two younger big men, Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe, who needed room to grow. There were no off-court distractions, no reported clashes in the locker room, no character issues.

"I think people don't understand the story, or misread him or take him as a guy that had a bad attitude," said former Pistons forward Charlie Villanueva, who recently stuck up for Smith on his personal blog. "And he's none of that. I think the media has the wrong perception of him."

But Smith's high-volume, low-efficiency shooting and ball dominance had certainly become a drag on the Pistons offense, which ranked third-to-last in the league with a 97.6 rating before Smith's departure.

The Rockets brushed away those concerns, signing Smith to play a more modest role, with a focus on playmaking and defense—the talents that made him part of a perennial playoff team in Atlanta.

Rockets coach Kevin McHale described Smith, quite simply, as "a guy that helps us win," with the ability to handle the ball, score, pass, rebound and defend.

From 2004-12, Smith was one the league's most versatile and feared defenders, a rangy, swooping blur of blocks and steals and rebounds.

Houston already boasted the NBA's second-best defense before Smith's arrival, but Morey saw a chance to get stronger. After starting four games, Smith asked to move to the bench, where he's now anchoring the second unit. As a Rocket, he has largely been under control, averaging a modest 10.5 points per game (on 10.8 shots), while shooting 42.9 percent.

The bad habits that made Smith a pariah in Detroit do not appear to be a problem in Houston, where he is necessarily deferential to franchise stars Dwight Howard and James Harden.

"Our offense requires and demands, which everybody respects on this team, to get the ball to James and Dwight," Smith acknowledged.

David Maxwell/Getty Images

When it was suggested to Van Gundy that the clear pecking order in Houston helped clarify Smith's role, the coach replied, simply, "Correct."

"He was in a very successful situation in Atlanta," Van Gundy said, "and he's back in a similar situation now, where Houston can use his defense, his rebounding, his passing, his versatility. He doesn't have to carry the offensive load. And I think that's a better use of all of his skills."

Though Smith is branded as an analytics nightmare because of his shooting, Morey protests, "That's a misnomer," citing Smith's positive impact defensively and in other areas. "His three-pointers have been not the best in the league, but certainly something you can work with. And in the paint he's a really good player. And he can pass really, really well, which is another [plus]. ...And he can attack the paint, which we like. So there's a lot of things to his game that people have beat him up for and we think are underrated parts of his game."

Morey added, "We got him at a great time in his career. All he's worried about is winning."

Smith averaged between 15 and 19 points per game in his prime years with the Hawks, while playing elite defense at times. Those talents won him a four-year, $54 million contract from Detroit in the summer of 2013, when then-president Joe Dumars made Smith and Brandon Jennings his marquee signings.

The problem, and it was evident even then, was that Smith's best position is power forward, and the Pistons frontcourt was already well-stocked with Drummond and Monroe.

The Pistons tried playing the three together, a clumsy experiment that hastened the demise of coach Maurice Cheeks and then interim coach John Loyer. Smith was always an eager, but errant, three-point shooter, and in Detroit he turned into a caricature of himself, launching and missing threes at a comical rate. He made 70 of 265 tries last season, his .264 percentage ranking as the second-worst ever for a player with at least 260 attempts.

The frenetic, whirling defense that made Smith such a vital weapon in Atlanta sort of disappeared in Detroit, along with soaring dunks and the thunderous blocks. Scouts wondered if Smith had lost his athleticism. Without the big hops, he was just another tall guy with a broken jumper and suspect judgment.

Allen Einstein/Getty Images

So when Van Gundy, who replaced Dumars last summer, waived Smith in late December, it was jarring but not entirely surprising. And maybe the results shouldn't be, either.

Smith was using a team-high 24.9 percent of the Pistons' possessions when he was on the court, per NBA.com, and not using them well, making 40.7 percent of his two-pointers and 24.3 percent of his threes.

"At this stage in Josh Smith's career, he's never going to get it," TNT's Charles Barkley said last week, a view shared by many critics.

Without Smith, the Pistons' offensive identity has been sharpened. It's about Jennings' playmaking and perimeter play, with Monroe banging inside and Drummond attacking the rim. Without Smith, the ball moves and the offense flows.

Detroit has also benefited from the recent return of sharpshooter Jodie Meeks and the acquisition of another shooter in Anthony Tolliver. So the resurgence is not entirely about Smith. But it's not entirely not about him either.

"I put it like this," Jennings told Bleacher Report. "This offense isn't meant for just one person to dominate the ball. It's meant for guys to get it, because we have so many options out there, with 'Dre now becoming a better post player, Greg one of the best ones, Jodie Meeks coming off the bench scoring, and things like that. So we have a lot of options."

No one in the Pistons locker room blames Smith for their 5-23 start. ("It definitely wasn't him," Drummond said.) They all speak highly of him. He's well-liked. But there is a palpable sense that they are better off without him, and it comes through subtly, with references to improved ball movement and selfless play.

It doesn't necessarily mean Smith was the problem. Just that, in this case, less is more.

"I think some guys are more comfortable in getting more opportunities, and so they're playing better," Van Gundy said. "You've taken the guy who had the ball in his hands more than anybody on our team out of the equation. You've split those possessions up among other guys. Everybody's getting more opportunities, so everybody's more comfortable, more confident and in a better rhythm."

No one has flourished more than Jennings, who is averaging 20.3 points and shooting .470 from the field since Smith was dumped, after averaging 12.6 points on .368 shooting in the first 28 games. His assists have ticked up slightly, too, to seven per game. With more opportunities and more freedom, Jenningsonce considered a gunner himselfis blossoming into an efficient offensive force.

"Leaps and bounds," Pistons veteran Caron Butler proclaimed as he walked past Jennings. "Leaps and bounds."

Eric Gay/Associated Press

Without Smith, Van Gundy has been free to refashion the Pistons offense in the mold of his old Orlando teams, with one big man—Monroe or Drummondsurrounded by shooters who can spread the floor. The two still start together, but they mostly alternate minutes at center.

The results have been brilliant. In the 10-game stretch without Smith that concluded Monday, the Pistons posted the second-best offensive rating (110.1) and third-best defensive rating (97) in the league.

All because they waived Josh Smithor so the tale goes.

"I really don't pay attention," Smith said. "I watch Family Guy, watch Maury Povich...so I really don't really put my ears and eyes to negative publicity."

The saga is fascinating. But Smith will leave it to the historians to make sense of it all.

 

Howard Beck covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @HowardBeck.

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