It’s a shame that Detroit Pistons forward Josh Smith became a punching bag for criticism last season. That’s not to say it wasn’t warranted, of course. Smith reached a career nadir in 2013-2014, posting numbers across the board well below his previously established and generally solid norms. The genesis behind his decline is obvious: Smith was playing out of position at small forward, and fell easier victim than ever to his proclivity for hoisting jumper after jumper.
Below is Smoove’s shot chart from last season. It simply doesn’t get much uglier than this for a player that averaged 35 minutes per game:
Yikes. All of that red is made even worse by the fact that Smith set a modern benchmark for long-range futility in his first season with Detroit. Only all-around defensive ace Mookie Blaylock of mid-1990s Atlanta Hawks fame and notorious Boston Celtics chucker Antoine Walker have ever taken as many three-pointers as Smith did in 2013-2014 and made so few of them. Blaylock’s merits otherwise were obvious, and Walker was basically laughed out of the league in 2008 after he refused to curb his hideously inefficient ways.
The unfortunate thing for Smith is that he was basically preordained to suffer such struggles. The Pistons signed him to a four-year, $56 million contract two summers ago knowing that Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond were entrenched as their starting frontcourt, which meant Smith would spend of a majority of his court-time on the wing, stationed 18-feet and beyond from the basket.
It might as well have been a moth to a flame. J-Smoove has loved letting lefty jump-shots fly since he entered the league, and only began to curb that debilitating tendency when he was moved to power forward in 2008. But it cropped up again in the interim, as Smith attempted a larger share of long twos in 2011-2012 and larger share of treys in 2012-2013 than ever before. To expect him to adjust while starting on the wing was foolish, and it’s debatable that anyone actually did at all – like we said, none of his shooting labors were surprising.
New Detroit czar Stan Van Gundy seems to comprehend the limits of Smith’s game and the redundancies of the Pistons’ roster far better than his predecessors. He surely won’t play the disastrous Smith-Monroe-Drummond triumvirate half as much of the 1,360 minutes that Mo Cheeks and John Loyer did last season, lending Smith far more time at power forward.
But the best players sometimes just need to play, and Van Gundy insists that Smith’s understanding of what constitutes a good shot is at an all-time high. What does that mean? Fewer three-pointers, thank god.
“I think Josh has a very good understanding of the shots he needs to shoot that are not only best for him, but best for our team,” Van Gundy said. “He’s one of the elite guys in the league around the basket. Last year, stuff inside, right at the rim, in two straight years, he has been 71% and 77%. There’s very few guys at that level. So he needs to get more of those. He knows that. He also understands he really doesn’t need to shoot threes for this team.
“Will he get some? The other night, late in the shot clock, throw it back … you have to take that shot. He’s going to shoot some. It’s not a matter of number, one a game, less than one a game. It’s when are you shooting them? There might a game where he might take three.”
“He has an understanding of how he needs to play for our team; it’s the discipline to do it, ” Van Gundy said. “He’s a smart guy. He knows and he’s not trying to fight you about anything. We need to put him around the basket and at the elbow area, where he can use his strength.”
It’s unrealistic to expect Smith to ditch the long-ball altogether. As Van Gundy notes, sometimes specific in-game situations dictate certain shots. But that someone might have finally gotten through to Smoove will give him a chance to resume his standing as one of the most versatile two-way players in basketball.
Smith is a fantastic athlete, impactful rim-protector, and gifted playmaker. There aren’t many players who possess the blend of physical prowess and skills he does. But having them only helps so much; implementing them is what really matters.
Here’s hoping Van Gundy’s influence on Smith is real and lasting. The East needs another competitor at the bottom of the playoff race, and a fully engaged, suddenly efficient Smith would go a long way towards ensuring Detroit can make some legitimate noise.
What do you think?
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