While there was plenty of blame to share for last season’s dismal 29-53 record, Josh Smith was the lightning rod for most of the criticism. Frankly, that’s what you should expect when you sign a $54 million contract and the end result is no more wins. This is especially the case when you miss more shots (716) than at any time in your career. Or when with 234 more attempts you make only 13 more field goals than you did in your most efficient year (2009-10).
Speculation that Smith might be traded to Sacramento flared up on two occasions during the offseason, but most of that talk has died down since Greg Monroe signed his Qualifying Offer. As of now it appears that coach Stan Van Gundy will abandon the "Big Three" starting line-up that featured Andre Drummond, Monroe and Smith. It remains to be seen whether this will lead to Smith starting at power forward or playing a role as the "Third Big" off the bench. For at least the first preseason game, Smith will get the starting nod over Monroe.
Back in June, Van Gundy made this comment about Smith: "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." Certainly this happened frequently with the former Atlanta Hawk last season. Although it’s an ugly memory for most Pistons’ fans, let’s review how Smith performed in his first year in Motown.
2013-14 Year in Review
Trying to find a silver lining in Smith’s play is a difficult exercise for even his biggest fans. His .419 shooting percentage was easily a career worst. Among players in ESPN’s ranking of three-point shooters, Smith was last (151st) with his .264 percentage. Yet he attempted more threes (265) than ever before. While Brandon Jennings was the sole Piston to shoot more frequently from behind the arc, only seldom used Luigi Datome and Charlie Villanueva were less accurate than Smith.
While Smith bears heavy responsibility for his "ready, fire, aim" shooting, the miscasting of him in the role of starting small forward was the initial mistake. And the blame for stubbornly refusing to change the playing rotation when it was clearly not working well also lies with Joe Dumars and head coaches Mo Cheeks and John Loyer.
However, Smith logged significant time at power forward last season. And a look at his shot charts for the past four years shows a clear trend toward shooting more from the outside and less from the inside, where he is very efficient. In 2013-14 Smith connected on .711 percent of his shots at the rim. But his attempts (301) were the fewest in eight years. He took the most shots ever (548 at a .444 clip) from 16 feet and beyond. Yet for the last four years over .400 percent of his shots have come from that range. So what we witnessed was the continuation of an established pattern.
While the trend is clearly headed in the (wrong) direction of taking more outside shots, Smith has never averaged making even .400 percent of his shots from 10 feet and out during his 10 years in the NBA. Over his career, he has shot .313 percent from 10 feet or more. During this same span he has made .671 percent of his shots at the rim. While Smith has attempted 607 more shots from 10 feet and beyond, he has made 1,246 more shots at the rim!
2014-15 Projected Production
In coach Van Gundy, Smith has a coach who knows where he is – and is not – most effective:
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.
Because of Monroe’s two-game suspension, it appears most likely that the season will open with Smith starting at power forward. Whether he holds on to that role will depend on his performance – and Monroe’s once he gets back on the floor. Whoever starts, it’s highly probable that of the 96 minutes available at the two power positions, most of the available time will go to Drummond, Monroe and Smith.
The big question mark is whether playing at his more natural position will lead to a major improvement in Smith’s efficiency. Even when he was in Atlanta, Smith sometimes talked like he would defer to better shooters, yet his on-court performance did not change. So we probably need to take his preseason comments with a grain of salt:
"Being able to play in the mid-range and attacking," Smith said of his likeliest role. "If somebody comes over to help out, I’ll be able to find the open man and I’m very confident that those players are going to knock shots down because they’ve proven it their whole careers."
Expecting Smith to morph back into the much more efficient offensive performer of 2009-10, when he made .505 percent of his shots, is not realistic. But a return to his career level of .459 percent probably is possible in Van Gundy’s system. We might also expect Smith to shoot less and pass more, which should also help Detroit’s offense run more smoothly.
80 games, 30 minutes per game, 14 points, 7 rebounds, 3.5 assists