Steve Kyler of Basketball Insiders believes the Pistons have ceased any efforts to trade Josh Smith and have instead pinned their hopes on him performing more efficiently this season.
"Contract value aside ... sure," he replied. "Josh gets a lot of heat because of his shot selection, but he is still one of the top 75 or so players in the league. I think it always comes down to what do you have to give up to get him."
Then Kyler added this comment:
"I want to be clear the Pistons are not shopping Josh. In fact they are hoping to get a more efficient Josh this season."
While there were two series of rumors during the summer that a trade of Smith to Sacramento was being discussed, nothing ever came of those alleged talks. Assuming there was truth to the talks, it seems likely that Stan Van Gundy did not like what the Kings were offering, and chose instead to make the most of Smith’s abilities. Or, as Kyler put it, he’s "hoping to get a more efficient Josh this season."
Is it reasonable to hope that Smith will be more efficient in 2014-15? Fans who share that dream can pin their expectations on three factors: Smith’s position change, Van Gundy’s coaching, and Smith’s preseason play.
Smith’s position change
While Van Gundy did start Smith at small forward in the preseason contest at Charlotte last Wednesday, he has primarily been used at power forward – the position he played most often in Atlanta. While Smith frequently moved to that spot when either Andre Drummond or Greg Monroe went to the bench last season, he still started and spent most of his minutes at small forward. As has been well-documented by many others, this (mis)use of Smith encouraged his worst tendencies as a shooter.
Smith was his usual efficient self in the paint in 2013-14, making .711 percent of his shots at the rim according to basketball-reference.com. But his attempts from that location were the fewest (301) since his first two years in the league, when he played fewer minutes and the Hawks were using him more at small forward. Contrast that with his most efficient season (2009-10) when Smith attempted over half of all his shots at the rim (616).
For his career to date, Smith has averaged 401 attempts at the rim per season, which is also the same number he shot from that area his last year in Atlanta. Remarkably, he made .771 percent of those baskets in 2012-13, and his career average is .671 percent.
Smith attempted more shots from 16-feet and out last season than he ever has before – 548. But he’s attempted over 500 the past four years, with long two-point attempts usually exceeding the threes. In 2013-14 those shot types were almost equally divided, but he shot poorly from both locations.
Based on his history, using Smith almost exclusively at power forward well not by itself lead to a radically more efficient performance by him. So hopes for improved play will need to rely mostly on the influence of Detroit’s new head coach and his staff.
Van Gundy’s coaching
Van Gundy has openly stated that he is well aware of both the strengths and weaknesses in Smith’s game. Back in June Detroit’s new coach spoke extensively about what he saw in the former Atlanta star:
"When we played them in the second round of the playoffs and they had a very good team, I believe he only shot seven threes the entire season," Van Gundy said. "He played to his strengths. That’s a big key, not just for Josh but for everybody.
"You have certain things you can do and for whatever reason, players always want to try to do a little bit more. Well, sometimes expanding your game isn’t better. Sometimes shrinking your game is a little bit better and really get to the things you do well. Those are conversations we’ll have, not only with Josh. You want to play to your greatness and there is certainly greatness in Josh Smith.
"Josh Smith, put in the right spots, is an outstanding player. You put Josh down on the right block, in the low post or even on a short isolation – 12 feet, 15 feet from the basket – he can get to the rim. He’s outstanding. He’s not only a very willing passer, but an outstanding passer. I think it’s the best part of Josh’s game. Probably the most overlooked part of his game is his ability to create for teammates. He can also really rebound the ball and block shots. I think he’s great when he takes the ball off the boards and then can lead the break. He’s got great ballhandling ability. He makes good decisions.
"I think Josh has got a lot of talent, but I do think that at times he can get away from his strengths and start playing to his weaknesses."
In the 2010 playoff series between Atlanta and Orlando (won 4-0 by the Magic) referred to by Van Gundy, Smith averaged 15.8 points and 7.7 rebounds. He shot .441 percent from the field and attempted only one three-pointer (a miss). While that is not great efficiency, it’s still a step up from Smith’s .419 percent for Detroit last year.
While it’s much too soon to say with any certainty that Van Gundy’s coaching will have the desired effect on Smith, his statements indicate that there has been clear communication between the two about what the expectations are. So the last place we can look for now is at how Smith has actually played so far under the new regime.
Smith’s preseason play
First of all, six preseason games do not provide sufficient data to make any sure judgments about whether Smith will play more effectively this season. At most we can look at the initial trends and compare them to past performance to see if they offer us any clues. So here is what we have seen thus far, compared to Smith’s career numbers and last year’s statistics, with all numbers given at a Per36 rate:
While any conclusions we make based on these numbers are extremely preliminary, they do provide some encouragement to those who anticipate a more effective contribution from Smith. While the shooting percentage is still substandard for a power forward, the attempts are down – especially from three-point range. If that trend were to continue, he would shoot threes at a rate closer to that of his early years, when one or two per game was the norm.
While a rising rebounding rate is also nice to see, the most significant development is the use of Smith as a playmaker. While his assist/turnover ratio is not great (1.55:1), it should probably be compared to a player like LeBron James (1.81:1 in 2013-14), rather than to a typical point guard. Even more telling is that this trend seems to reflect his new head coach’s view that passing is one of Smith’s key abilities. As was noted above, Van Gundy has said, "I think it’s the best part of Josh’s game."
So while it is still very early, the initial indications appear to be that Smith is responding to the wishes of his new coach. He is shooting fewer threes – a weakness – and he is passing more to open teammates – a strength. What cannot be determined, of course, is whether this early data is a sign of more efficient play to come, or an aberration that will evaporate like the morning dew when the real games are underway.
As Kyler indicated, it does appear that Josh Smith is here to stay in Detroit for the foreseeable future. No one can predict what will transpire between now and the February trade deadline, but Van Gundy appears to have concluded that he can indeed get more efficient play from Smith this season. He is certain to start the team’s first two games while Monroe is under suspension. Whether he will continue in a starting role or move to the bench after Monroe comes back will probably depend on how the Pistons perform in those opening outings.
The quandary for Van Gundy will be that if Smith plays significantly more efficiently, he will become a more attractive trade target for other teams. Yet in that case, with Monroe due to become an unrestricted free agent next summer, Van Gundy might be even more reluctant to part with Smith.
On the other hand, if Smith reverts to the wildly inefficient performer he was in 2013-14, it will become even more difficult to find a willing trade partner. The immediate upside of this would probably be an even greater role for Monroe, but that will not insure that he will re-sign with the Pistons. With Drummond eligible for a max extension in 2016-17, Monroe looking for big money in 2015, and Smith already pulling in $13.5 million per year, there will also be constraints on the funds available to otherwise upgrade the roster if Van Gundy tries to keep all three big men.
Apparently the organization has elected to let this season play out under a new head coach with a new system, and resolve these personnel issues next summer. While more efficient play from Smith will certainly help the Pistons’ prospects for making the playoffs, it may not make it any easier for Van Gundy to reshape the roster into a true championship contender.