There have been some lousy Detroit Pistons players over the years. Especially during the team's current streak of six straight seasons missing the playoffs.
Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva were disappointing high-priced free agents. Brandon Knight struggled mightily when given more responsibility than he was ready for. Allen Iverson's short tenure was a disaster. But none of them came close to Josh Smith in his 105 games with the Pistons.
The exclamation point to just how bad Josh Smith was for the Pistons came December 22 when the team waived Smith less than halfway through his 4 year, $54 million contract. They chose to eat the $27 million or so remaining rather than continue to watch him toss up ill-advised jump shots and lose his man on defense.
Now, Smith's 2013-14 season was bad enough that expectations for him were tempered coming into this season. In the three-point era, only six players had shot a worse true shooting percentage (which takes into account the value of three point shots and free throws) while taking more than 1,000 field goal attempts. Only Antoine Walker had taken as many three pointers as Smith and made them at a lower percentage.
Smith reached a level of destructiveness that belongs in the history books. But over the summer, Detroit hired Stan Van Gundy to serve as both their coach and head of the front office. Van Gundy seemed to think that he could harness the good in Smith - and fans could take heart that if he didn't, he was able to trade Smith away. With the coaching upgrade and empowered position, it seemed the best of both worlds.
But it wasn't.
According to win shares and wins produced, Smith was actually even worse this season than last year. And Van Gundy looked even more flummoxed than the coaches he replaced in Maurice Cheeks and John Loyer.
Van Gundy had options that were working. Greg Monroe was in the midst of a breakout season. Jonas Jerebko was playing some of the best ball of his career. Yet he stuck with Smith all the way to the end. In Smith's last game with the Pistons, he was third on the team in minutes played and led the team in field goal attempts. Appropriately, he shot 5 of 16.
From the start, Smith's season was a continuation of last year. It took 24 games and 350 shot attempts for him to finish a game shooting over 50 percent from the field (that's an average of 14.6 per game).
Even in the very first game of the season, Kenneth Faried shared the Nuggets game plan of letting Smith shoot. "Josh Smith, we let him keep shooting. And he ended up with 25, but he still kept shooting. He shot them out of the game."
That erupted into a minor war of the words, as Smith responded by... making fun of Faried's hairdo. And continuing to shoot the Pistons out of games.
Van Gundy's adjustment to Smith's start was to shift him out of the starting small forward role, which made sense. But in doing so, he kept Smith in the starting lineup and moved Monroe to the bench, which didn't make sense.
But it made some sense that Van Gundy might think he could salvage Smith's time with the Pistons. In 2013-14, Smith still shot 71 percent inside three feet, the best mark on the team. He was an excellent defender when he was focused, holding opposing players to five percent below their average shooting percentages from within six feet. Most of Smith's problems were between his ears. If Van Gundy could reign in Smith's shooting habits and get him invested in playing team defense, it could work. But it never really came close.
By the time Van Gundy finally made the drastic move to waive Smith, the team had fallen to 5-23. It was a relief to fans, and likely the team as well as they immediately reeled off a seven game win streak. But it's still unclear why Van Gundy never tried any incremental moves.
He could have tried bringing Smith off of the bench instead of starting him all 28 games. He could have tried limiting Smith's minutes -- Smith only failed to crack 20 minutes once and finished the season second on the team in minutes per game. He never really even seemed to try aggressively trading Smith.
It was just full throttle to full brake. Which beats never braking. It's just weird.
Especially because Smith wasn't always terrible through the course of the whole game during his time with the Pistons. In fact, he was pretty good at times. In first quarters, he averaged 5.4 points per game on 46 percent shooting, 2.3 rebounds, 1.7 assists, .6 steals, and .7 rebounds. That's awesome! Over a whole game, that'd be a line of about 21/9/7/2.4/2.8.
But things would go downhill from there. Things were especially bad in the fourth quarters, when Smith shot 29 percent despite leading the team in shot attempts. His performance helped the Pistons become one of the worst fourth quarter teams in the league, averaging a -2.4 margin and shooting a league-worst 40.5 percent true shooting.
One of his biggest highlights of the season came on December 7. After scrambling back from trailing by seven in the final five minutes of the game, the Pistons had a chance to even the score.
Three weeks later, Smith would be waived.
With time in Detroit at a close, he established a strong claim to the worst player ever to wear a Pistons jersey. His 45 percent true shooting was the worst mark by a hefty margin for the franchise in the three-point era for any player who had attempted 1,500 shots or more. He also had the lowest win shares per 48 minutes for any player with as significant of a role.
Though Smith contributed in some ways, offering a decent rebounding and assist percentage, neither came close to making up for his overwhelming shooting. His defense was also a mixed bag between shutting players down when he was locked in, but usually drifting around lost in space.
Smith became something of a punchline after he was waived, most entertainingly when Zito Madu encouraged us all to waive the Josh Smith in our own lives. But he found some redemption with the Houston Rockets, as he's currently playing in the Western Conference finals.
At times he's even been legitimately helpful. But don't buy the idea that he's suddenly become good. He finished the regular season 13th on the Rockets in win shares per 48 minutes, and a true shooting percentage of just 50 percent despite taking the fourth most shots on the team -- and he accomplished that in just 55 games worth of work.
Smith will once again be a free agent this summer and it'll be a fascinating process to watch. Perhaps his trip to the conference finals will persuade some team to sign him to real money. But even though he's yet to hit his 30th birthday, it's tough to see Smith having too much of a future in the league if he continues to miss shots at such a remarkable rate.
What do you think, DBB?