The future in Detroit is Andre Drummond and attempting to build a contending team around a rare talent. But the present is a messier affair with talent at multiple positions that can never seem to fit quite right together. The biggest square peg last year was Josh Smith, a high-priced free agent asked to play out of position at small forward while the Pistons' two young big men -- Drummond and Greg Monroe -- continued to develop inside.
Once Stan Van Gundy was hired he made it relatively clear that he liked Drummond and Monroe as a pairing and thought Smith was a talent being misused. The days of Josh Smith the small forward were effectively over.
Smith recently arrived at the practice facility and told Pistons.com writer Keith Langlois what the latest change in position means. First, he's adding a bunch of muscle back to his frame so that he can bang down low. Second, he discussed his offensive role on the team going forward.
First the good:
"I'm ready to play whatever position is asked of me," said Smith, noticeably thicker in the chest and shoulders, in his first day back at the Pistons practice facility on Tuesday. "But I'm going to play a lot of (power forward) and that was my main focus on being able to get more in the weight room and put some more muscle on my body to be able to withstand that physicality in the paint. I played that position so much, so long in the league that I know how big you have to be in order to be able, night in and night out, to withstand that impact and that physical nature inside the paint."
Fitting these pieces together will still be a challenge -- there is limited minutes and plenty of players contending for time on the floor -- and Langlois reports that Van Gundy will experiment in preseason with lineups big (Drummond, Monroe, Smith) and small (Kentavious Caldwell-Pope at small forward). But key will be how Smith is utilized inside and Langlois highlights Smith's passing ability as a great asset.
And it is indeed an asset. While he can't be your primary facilitator, Smith is one of only nine players 6-foot-9 or taller over the past five years to average at least 3 assists per game. And Smith's turnover percentage isn't terribly out of line with those other big men, though he ranks 7th overall.
But when Smith was asked to assess his own role in the offense, the bad comes out:
"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."
Mid-range. Mid-range? Uh oh.
Now there is two ways to look at this. The first, most charitable, definition is that Smith attacks in two ways: via the drive and via the post. In this interpretation he will essentially have a role similar to Monroe's. That is taking the ball at the high post and using his quick first step to blow by his defender toward the basket or make a quality pass on his cut while defenders are rotating.
The second, less charitable, definition is attacking via the jump shot. And that is a role he has an awful lot of experience with in his 10-year career.
Smith took 446 jumpers between 5 and 19 feet last year and 395 the year before that, shooting 34 percent and 30 percent, respectively, on said jumpers.
Simply put, Smith should not be taking these shots. He cannot make these shots. These are the worst shots in basketball and Smith is pretty bad at them. There are many arguments about what constitutes a good mid-range shooter -- the best can shoot near 50 percent but even below that is probably effective enough to force the defense to adjust -- but I am pretty confident that hovering between 30-35 percent is very bad indeed and forces no adjustments.
The truth is that Smith's range extends out about five feet and the sooner he realizes it the sooner he can be an effective offensive player. He finishes extremely well inside and is lighting quick when the opportunity arises. That should be his role on offense.
So let's hope that Smith is able to find that niche for himself in Detroit, assuming he finds himself still on the team by opening night. There are some indications at least that Smith is interested in that facilitator role, that that could be because of the line of questions Langlois asked.
"People will have to concentrate a lot on the perimeter," he said. "It's going to be hard to pack the paint and dare us to shoot like they did last year because we have a lot of guys who can really stretch the floor and shoot the basketball. Bringing those guys in and having (Caldwell-Pope) with another year under his belt, being able to see the game slow down a little bit for him, and we have Jonas Jerebko as a stretch player. It should be fun to see it and how this thing is going to evolve."
Yes, Josh. They shoot. You pass. And dunk. But mostly pass. Definitely mostly pass.