Ish Smith, perhaps Stan Van Gundy’s only good free agent signing, had another solid if unspectacular year in Detroit. As a reserve, he was a whirlwind of energy for a bench unit that was top-10 in the league in Net Rating. As a starter, he was in place during the season-sinking 3-11 stretch in January after the Reggie Jackson injury, but before the Blake Griffin trade, when the offense was all Avery Bradley mid-range shots and Tobias Harris spotting up.
Even after the trade for Griffin, Ish was a limiting factor in spacing the floor around Blake Griffin, as defenses did not pay attention to him even as he was shooting a career-high 34.7 percent from three.
And that’s really the best way to think about Ish - as a valuable change-of-pace reserve guard who, as a guy defenses don’t respect to beat them from three, should not be called upon to start next to two other players (Stanley Jackson and Andre Drummond) who the defense doesn’t have to be attentive to on the perimeter.
Let’s look at the numbers:
Ish played almost the same about of minutes as both a starter and a reserve, but had more points (total points, not points per game), higher usage, and a better +/- when coming off the bench.
That’s a five-point swing in NetRating and a seven-point difference in assist rate between starting and coming off the bench (although the pace numbers are surprising). As a backup, Ish has the following advantages:
- He gets out in transition, which gives the Pistons that extra element of easy baskets they desperately need on occasion
- Teams don’t prioritize taking advantage his lack of spacing in their defensive gameplan
- He goes up against other bench units - teams don’t put their best defenders on the court to slow him down
As a starter, though:
- It felt as if Ish walked it up way more, in an attempt to conserve energy to play 30+ minutes a night. The Pistons might’ve played at a higher pace with Ish as a starter than Ish on the bench, but they definitely didn’t play FASTER, if that makes any sense.
- Ish’s lack of spacing became much more of an issue as teams game-planned to give him space and he couldn’t take advantage. Ish shot fewer threes as a starter than as a reserve, despite a roughly equal number of minutes and a better three-point percentage as a starter.
- Most damaging for Detroit, his backups were Langston Galloway (who should’ve got a longer leash but did not impress), Dwight Buycks (had a really nice 5-or-so game run and then was a fringe NBA player the rest of the season) and Jameer Nelson (I am ASHAMED at how much I thought Jameer Nelson could help this team).
That last point I think is key - moving forward, the Pistons have to operate with the knowledge that Ish Smith should not be relied upon to start for extended stretches for any reason. To me, that means one of two things should happen this offseason: trade Ish for a point guard whose skillet is more conductive to starting, or acquire a less injury-prone starting lead guard than Reggie Jackson.
Whether he is or isn’t moved, after reading features like the one ESPN’s Michael Rothstein wrote or the Athletic’s James Edwards’ Q+A, I’ll be rooting for Ish. He’s made his career what it is through sheer perseverance, and you can’t help but respect that.