How Much Better Will the Detroit Pistons Be Without Josh Smith?

Josh Martin@@JoshMartinNBANBA Lead WriterDecember 27, 2014

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It's not at all uncommon for a breakup to benefit both parties. If the circumstances of a given union are so dire as to even consider a split, chances are, that relationship wasn't going to last in any healthy way anyway.

To that end, the expensive divorce the Detroit Pistons arranged with Josh Smith may well be a win-win.

Smith logged 21 points, eight rebounds and three assists off the bench to help his new team, the Houston Rockets, knock off the Memphis Grizzlies in overtime, 117-111, despite Dwight Howard contributing just six points to the cause.

As for Smith's old team, the typically anemic Pistons pummeled the Indiana Pacers' top-10 defense for 119 points on 54.7 percent shooting—both season highs—in a 10-point win over a division rival.

Say what you will about the fiscal and transactional wisdom (or lack thereof) of the Pistons pulling the rip cord on the $36 million remaining on Smith's contract, or of the decision to stretch that money across the club's cap sheet through 2019-20. 

That's not a good look for a franchise that hasn't seen the light of a playoff day since 2009—especially not one in a city recently rocked by the sort of fiscal malfeasance in its own front office that's far more consequential than any questionable deal Joe Dumars put forth.

But keeping Smith under any circumstances wouldn't have been a good look for the Pistons, either. Now that he's gone, Detroit, under the auspices of team president/head coach/resident Diet Pepsi mascot Stan Van Gundy, can look forward to some relief in their frontcourt for the remainder of the 2014-15 season while building toward a brighter future.

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Their recent past with Smith had offered little more than a continuation of the dark times that began with the dismantling of the Pistons' contending core from the 2000s. 

Last season, Smith's first in the Motor City, the Pistons were 4.1 points per 100 possessions worse than the opposition when Smith played and five points/100 worse when he sat, per NBA.com. Either way, the Pistons weren't very good, and their record—29-53, identical to their pre-Smith mark in 2012-13—reflected as much.

Even those dismal seasons seem like salad days compared to what Detroit has done since the current campaign began. The Pistons, at 5-23 prior to Smith's departure, didn't just own the NBA's third-worst record; they were also off to the worst start in franchise history.

A history that dates back to 1941, when they were the Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons.

This squad, with Smith on the roster, narrowly avoided setting another dubious franchise record, with 13 consecutive losses between mid-November and early December, and had since commenced another four-game slide. 

MEMPHIS, TN - DECEMBER 26:  Josh Smith #5 of the Houston Rockets warms up before the game against the Memphis Grizzlies on December 26, 2014 at the FedExForum in Memphis, Tennessee.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloadin
Joe Murphy/Getty Images

Smith's continued presence in the Pistons' locker room might've extended that skid even further. According to NBA.com, Detroit had been outscored by 11.6 points/100 when Smith played, as opposed to a more manageable 1.3 points/100 when he didn't. 

The bulk of that improvement has come on the offensive end. Without Smith, the Pistons have scored about as efficiently as have the Sacramento Kings, Los Angeles Lakers and Miami Heat—which is to say, roughly league average. With him, their offensive output plunged to depths known only by the Philadelphia 76ers.

That shouldn't come as any great surprise. Smith had been shooting career lows from the field (.391) and from within three feet of the hoop (.586). He'd cut down considerably on his three-point tries (from a career-high 3.4 per game in 2013-14 to 1.3 this season) but had seen an unsettling uptick in long twos and those in the awkward three-to-10-foot range. 

Clearly, the "Josh Smith Experience" wasn't working—not for Smith and certainly not for the Pistons.

"You have to always assess where you are and weigh the present with the future, the short-term future with the rest of the year, the long term future, everything," Van Gundy said on Dec. 15, the unofficial opening day of the NBA's trade season.

In pure basketball terms, Smith's ouster should benefit the Pistons in every temporal sense.

Most immediately, it means more minutes and more starts for Greg Monroe. The Pistons haven't been great (or even good) when Monroe plays alongside Andre Drummond, the team's budding star, though that pair has been far more effective than Drummond-Smith was. According to NBA.com, the Pistons had posted a net rating of minus-2.5 with Drummond-Monroe duo on the floor prior to Smith's ouster. 

Those two were terrific in tandem against the Pacers' physical front line of Roy Hibbert and David West. Drummond and Monroe combined for 39 points on 16-of-23 shooting. The Pistons, on the whole, shot 60 percent from the field when those two young giants shared the floor on Friday and outscored Indy by what would've been a whopping 20.4 points per 100 possessions, per the NBA's media site (subscription required).

Dec 26, 2014; Auburn Hills, MI, USA; Detroit Pistons center Andre Drummond (0) high fives forward Greg Monroe (10) during the first quarter against the Indiana Pacers at The Palace of Auburn Hills. Mandatory Credit: Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports
USA TODAY Sports

Granted, the Pistons didn't play anywhere near 100 possessions in the 14 minutes that Drummond and Monroe shared. Nonetheless, even that small of a sample could prove encouraging if the Pistons are able to string together more stretches like that in the weeks and months to come.

If the good times persist, perhaps the Pistons will wind up keeping Monroe, whom they drafted with the No. 7 pick in 2010.

There remains a strong possibility that he'll no longer be a Piston come July, however, this latest chapter turns out. The 24-year-old Georgetown product will be an unrestricted free agent at season's end. As The Detroit News' Vincent Goodwill wrote, the Pistons' prospects of retaining Monroe probably haven't improved much in Smith's sudden absence:

Now, the natural assumption is Monroe will gladly sign a contract with the Pistons this summer, with Smith out of the way — on the floor and in the locker room.

That assumption would be wrong, and the Pistons can't be operating under that premise. First-year coach Stan Van Gundy said as much in his news conference, but perhaps he's holding out hope Monroe now will give the Pistons a longer look.

And maybe, just maybe, Monroe will in the event that a Smith-free environment leads to greater success, both for himself and the entire squad.

If it doesn't, and Monroe decides to split for greener pastures, the Pistons could still wind up winners over the long haul. As RealGM's Jonathan Tjarks noted, a death spiral could put Detroit in position to draft another gifted frontcourt partner for Drummond:

Whether Monroe stays or goes, Drummond will still be in the Motor City for the foreseeable future. He won't be eligible for any form of free agency until 2016-17 and may well sign an extension before then to keep him in a Pistons uniform through 2021-22.

At present, Drummond is on that very track. "He’s getting so much better so quickly," Monroe said during the Pistons' recent visit to L.A.

"I’m amazed how quickly he’s grown as a person and as a player, just very happy for him," added Clippers coach Doc Rivers, whose adopted son roomed with Drummond in military school prior to Andre's arrival at UConn.

"He’s just figuring things out, quicker than I honestly thought he could. I thought because of his size, he could get in the league, but he’s playing basketball. He’s playing well, and he’s making decisions. It’s amazing when you see him at 16 and see him now; it’s not that long ago, how far he’s come."

Even the strides Drummond has made since turning pro in 2011 have been impressive, if not always smooth.

His rookie year, Drummond averaged 7.9 points, 7.6 rebounds and 1.6 blocks in under 21 minutes per game for then-head coach Lawrence Frank. The next year, Drummond assumed a starting role in the middle for Detroit and rewarded the Pistons for their faith by finishing second in the league in rebounds (13.2) and field-goal percentage (62.3).

AUBURN HILLS, MI - DECEMBER 26: Andre Drummond #0 of the Detroit Pistons drives down the court against the Indiana Pacers during the game on December 26, 2014 at The Palace of Auburn Hills in Auburn Hills, Michigan. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledg
Allen Einstein/Getty Images

Drummond didn't get off to such a stirring start in his third season. His field-goal percentage (48.2 percent) plummeted on account of a much steadier diet of post-ups and solo scoring opportunities in Van Gundy's offense, for which young Andre hasn't always seemed prepared.

"You kind of catch yourself and say that he is just 21 years old," Pistons reserve Joel Anthony told Bleacher Report. "It’s still surprising."

It wouldn't be surprising, though, if Drummond's performance continued to soar in Smith's absence.

According to NBA.com, the Pistons were better almost across the board—in net rating, rebounding percentage and effective field-goal percentage, in particular—when Drummond played without Smith. Individually, Drummond also took a much larger share of his shots within five feet of the rim when he didn't have to share the floor with Smith. 

In essence, Smith's departure should help to unclog what had been a crowded frontcourt in Detroit. It may also unleash the slew of shooters the Pistons acquired this past summer to help the bigs breathe in the first place.

As Van Gundy noted after making the move, the Pistons' perimeter players—including, but not limited to, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Jodie Meeks and Kyle Singler—could soak up some of the shots that Smith would've otherwise (errantly) launched. 

Of course, there's no guarantee that the Pistons' dramatic move to waive Smith will ultimately work out in their favor. His contract will be on their cap through the end of the decade, though that might not matter much when the salary cap explodes under the league's new national TV deal.

But paying a talented veteran to go away, without getting anything tangible in return, could look even worse when considering what the Pistons might've scored in a trade had Van Gundy seen the writing on the wall once he took over team owner Tom Gores' operation.

According to ESPN.com's Marc Stein, the Sacramento Kings considered prying Smith from the Pistons this past summer in a deal that would've sent Jason Thompson and at least one other player (Derrick Williams, Jason Terry or Carl Landry) back to Detroit.

Whether that preemptive housecleaning would've helped or hindered matters, we'll never know. What became clear after that, though, was that Smith and the Pistons were headed for a separation—one that, like so many, isn't without mess, but that could be a positive development for all involved going forward.

Josh Martin covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter.