Not So Smoove Operators: Josh Smith and the Pistons

via flickr | ktpupp

via flickr | ktpupp

Talent wins in the NBA. Coaching, cohesion, health, and sheer luck are instrumental to a team’s fortunes, but each is subservient to the overriding factor that most influences outcomes on micro and macro levels. The best teams have the best collections of players and the worst teams the worst ones; all other influences are ancillary and relatively limited in scope.

Understanding that reality is crucial to building a successful franchise. Drafting and signing the best players available in the summer is the surest way for a losing team to drastically alter its fate, but that’s a venture easier theorized than implemented. Positional redundancies, salary cap complications, and potential chemistry concerns make the talent-over-everything approach a nebulous one in certain cases, even taking into account the construction of the league’s hierarchy.

Elite teams are always the most talented, but are the most talented teams always elite? The answer is circular, confusing, and certainly not concrete, but that hardly disproves the overwhelming value in employing the most gifted players. This isn’t the chicken or egg debate, basically; a team won’t be great until the worth of its overall roster reaches that threshold, too.

By signing Josh Smith to a four-year, $54 million contract this offseason, it’s clear the Detroit Pistons are counting on that sobering fact. And over a month into the 2013-2014 season, we’re seeing the constraints of it, too.

The offensive limitations of a Smith-Greg Monroe-Andre Drummond frontcourt have reared the inefficient, crowded results thus far that we all foretold in July. Well, at least according to the eye-test; Detroit plays an uglier game on a smaller court with their three big men in the lineup simultaneously. The numbers, though, tell a different and far more layered story.

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The Pistons have been a slightly above-average offensive team this season whether Smith-Monroe-Drummond units are on the court or the bench; Detroit’s overall offensive rating of 102.5 ranks 13th in the league, and the three-headed monster’s mark of 102.0 would as well. The difference in true shooting is similarly negligible, further confirming that the Pistons are hardly the offensive dumpster fire it can look like when Smith, Monroe, and Drummond share the floor.

That’s surprising; none of the other numbers are. The Pistons lead the league by a wide margin in percentage of points scored in the paint, and that ratio spikes even higher when they play big. Related is their reign on the offensive glass; Detroit leads all teams in offensive rebound percentage, and that dominance intensifies with Smith, Monroe, and Drummond playing together. The Pistons shoot far fewer three-pointers and free throws with their starting frontcourt on the floor, owed to the lack of space – for ball-reversal three-pointers and driving lanes – presented by pairing J-Smoove with two true big men.

What vexes, interests, and perhaps springs optimism is that Smith-Monroe-Drummond units assists on almost 4% more baskets than Detroit does on the whole. Some of that speaks simply to the advantage of more talented players being on the floor; guards like Brandon Jennings and Rodney Stuckey should be more reluctant to isolate when playing with other legitimate offensive threats.

But the unique passing talents of Smith combined with an uptick in assisted field goals suggest there’s major room for offensive growth with these units. Despite that hugely debilitating addiction to long jumpers, Smith isn’t a selfish player. His all-court vision and handle makes him one of the league’s most versatile players. Monroe has a bit of similarly underrated intellect in his game, too; having spent two years playing in the Princeton offense at Georgetown, he’s an especially adept passer from the high post.

All of which goes to say that the Pistons may have ways to make up for a lack of spacing other shooting-challenged teams don’t. The passing exploits of Smith and Monroe combined with Drummond’s unrivaled threat as a finisher at the rim provides opportunity for interesting wrinkles in theory. Jennings has made subtle improvements as a floor general, Stuckey’s been re-born as an impactful bench scorer, and even Smith’s off-ball movement deserves minor plaudits. Plus, Kyle Singler and Kentavious Caldwell Pope are bound to heat up from deep eventually. There are the makings of a better offense than merely average in Detroit, basically, a scary thought for an Eastern Conference middle class that won’t stop growing.

But where that improvement might be gleaned most easily is from the coaching staff. There were bound to be growing pains for Maurice Cheeks by utilizing three players like Smith, Monroe, and Drummond so often – they’re Detroit’s second most-used trio – and early. The league’s been trending small and putting an emphasis on space for years; with this personnel, Cheeks hand is forced to push the opposite direction.

In a win on the road against Miami on Tuesday, the limits of Smith’s shooting range and Cheeks’s inability to adjust nearly cost Detroit a win. Up seven points with just over three minutes remaining and Miami attempting a last-ditch comeback, the Pistons tried to attack Ray Allen off the dribble with Stuckey. That should be a winning proposition for Detroit; Allen’s stretched thin as an individual defender at this point in his career, and Stuckey’s revival is real. But this play is dead in the water almost before it begins.

As you can see in the still below, LeBron James leaves Smith in the corner as Jennings completes the hand-off with Stuckey. Detroit attempts to flatten the floor from here, but James won’t allow it; he continues towards the ball as Stuckey sizes up Allen and crosses the three-point line. This is the type of defensive attention normally reserved only for guys like James, but Smith is a basic non-threat from beyond the arc. At this point, Miami could live with an open three-point try from Smith.

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It bears mentioning that James isn’t a normal defender. The quicks of a small and size of a big gives him one of basketballs most effective close-outs, but he has far too much space to travel as Stuckey  finally makes the pass. This should be an open shot for the Pistons, and a good one at that; corner threes are the most valuable shot in basketball. But that’s Smith in the near corner, and it’s not just his slow release that complicates things; the jarring inaccuracy is even worse.

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The ball is just past LeBron’s left foot in the still above, and Smith has his hands ready to shoot. But it doesn’t matter. James closes the gap in time to contest a potential shot attempt and forces Smith into a hesitation dribble towards the baseline. That indecision gives the Heat ample time to adjust defensively. Chris Bosh stops Smith’s drive and James recovers to Monroe in time to strip the ball and initiate a fast break.

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Here’s the full sequence.

Unsurprisingly, nearly the exact same thing happens on the ensuing Detroit possession.

Coaching from the couch is far easier than the sideline, but the blame here resides with Cheeks. The ripple effects of Smith’s lack of range are seemingly endless; heavy help from his defender when the ball is dribbled his way is one of the biggest. That might not be the worst thing in certain cases, but James is one of basketball’s best help defenders. Keeping him from the action should be Detroit’s utmost priority, and putting Stuckey in this position – with Smith in the near corner – begs for LeBron to get involved. That it occurred on consecutive possessions is even more disturbing.

Cheeks needs to be better, and that begins with knowing how to best take advantage of Smith’s talents. If the Pistons were intent on isolating Stuckey against Allen, why not let Smith initiate the action in lieu of Jennings? Or flip the position of Smith and Stuckey from the possession’s outset, allowing the latter to attack right with Jennings as his strong-side release valve instead of Smith? Those are exceedingly simple fixes, and there are never-ending ancillary, in-the-moment complications that might have prevented Cheeks from implementing them. But it’s that type of layered minutiae that is so crucial to coaxing the best possible offense from Pistons lineups that feature Smith, Monroe, and Drummond.

Those specific instances against Miami not withstanding, Detroit seems to be figuring it out. The Pistons currently stand at 9-10 and have won three consecutive games, posting offensive ratings of at least 104.4 in all three contests. More encouraging? Smith, Monroe, and Drummond have combined to average 52.6 points per game over that stretch, nearly 11 points better than their season-long mark.

After weeks of play that led to many calling Smith’s signing a mistake, talent might be starting to win in Detroit. The final extent of that success will be measured in part by how Smith, Cheeks, and the rest continue adjusting to an offense limited by its spatial redundancies.

*Statistical support for this post provided by nba.com/stats.





Jack Winter