I don’t care how close Reggie Jackson is to returning to the lineup, the Ish Smith as starting point guard era needs to end right now.
The Pistons, currently mired in a four-game losing streak and winning only two of their past nine, cannot simply wait for Jackson to take back his spot in a week or two. Smith has made it abundantly clear he doesn’t fit alongside Andre Drummond and should take a seat in favor of Ben Udrih.
Each player is flawed, but Smith’s flaws are compounded when playing alongside Andre Drummond. Smith simply makes Drummond a worse player, and when you have the two of them out there sharing the court the defense is playing three on five.
They don’t just lack chemistry, they have negative chemistry. I don’t mean that they dislike each other. I mean that they don’t work well together on the court. Compared to the Jackson-Drummond duo last season, watching Ish and Dre run the pick and roll is like living in The Upsidedown. It seems familiar, but everything is dark, scary and covered in ash.
Unfortunately, there is no play more important to the success of Stan Van Gundy’s offense, and Drummond in particular than the pick and roll. But alongside Smith Drummond is not a threat to score when rolling to the basket. Smith’s inability to shoot leads defenders to slide under every screen daring him to pull the trigger. Because Drummond and Smith are essentially neutralized from the beginning of the play no other defenders are inclined to help off their man. This leads to the putrid offense we’ve seen the past few weeks — little ball movement, lack of space and inefficient looks.
Nobody has been as adversely affected as Drummond. Because he’s no longer a threat as a roll man, Drummond is posting up more than ever and scoring an abysmal 0.65 points per possession on the play, tied with Pau Gasol for the worst mark in the league for players with more than 40 post-ups. Inexplicably, Drummond has less possessions as a roll man than teammate Tobias Harris. Drummond scores 1.3 points per possession compared to Harris’ 0.54 ppp.
Again, Detroit is maximizing the ugliest aspects of its offense.
It’s not that Drummond is all of the sudden disinterested in rolling to the basket for an easy dunk, it’s that his point guard rarely looks to lob the ball or even threaten defenders at the basket in the pick-and-roll.
Smith’s performance has been just about a perfect encapsulation of what people feared when he was signed to a lucrative three-year, $21 million deal. He was pressed into the starting role when Jackson went down with an injury and instead of the superior talent around him helping cover his flaws, it has exacerbated them with higher quality defenses and offensively limited teammates.
Smith is prone to dribble into the paint and snake his way under the basket as he assesses any defenders that might have left their assignment. Too often, however, everyone stays home because nobody is a threat to score in the pick-and-roll action.
Last year, Reggie Jackson ran the pick-and-roll a league-high 896 possessions, accounting for 55.9 percent of all plays with him on the floor. This is no mistake. Stan Van Gundy loves the pick and roll. Smith, however, runs the play just 48 percent of the time, and actually has less pick-and-roll possessions than Udrih despite playing nearly 200 more minutes.
Why does Udrih run the pick-and-roll despite spending such little time alongside Drummond? Because he is a threat with the ball in his hands, and when you’re a threat you draw defenders.
Udrih is not a dynamic playmaker, but he’s deadly in the mid-range and smart enough to find open teammates when defenders try and cut off his path to the basket or bother a potential shot.
Playing Udrih alongside Drummond as much as possible turns two offensive non-factors into two offensive threats. Udrih’s mid-range ability will start to draw defenders much the same way Jackson’s floaters do, giving Drummond an avenue to score efficiently. It should also draw perimeter defenders which will help create open looks for teammates and improve ball movement and overall offensive flow.
Following the trade for Tobias Harris, the Pistons starters had a 106.6 offensive rating, but so far this season that has plummeted to 100.1. The Pistons starters have played a league-high 476 minutes together but have a bottom-10 -3.7 net rating.
The time for change has come. Udrih fits much better with the starters and Smith might find more success flanked by Aron Baynes, Jon Leuer and Reggie Bullock than he has seen in the starting lineup.
If that doesn’t work, Van Gundy the coach needs to admit that Van Gundy the executive might have erred in giving a large contract to Smith and play Udrih, who the team effectively picked up off the scrap heap.
If Detroit wants to find themselves back in the playoffs it will need to play its most effective players, regardless of yearly salary.