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Ish Smith isn’t the Pistons’ answer, but he’s part of the solution

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The injured backup isn’t the savior, but how big of an impact can he make upon his return?

NBA: Phoenix Suns at Detroit Pistons Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

Let’s open with the obvious: There’s no easy fix for these Detroit Pistons.

They’re flawed, sure, but right now it feels like the end of the world. It’s a broken team. It’s a car without a starter, a nail without a hammer.

One of the biggest reasons for that is Ish Smith, or a lack of Ish. It turns out losing the smallest player on the roster has had the biggest impact on the season.

Since Smith tore his right adductor muscle in an early-December game against the Milwaukee Bucks, the Pistons’ early success has wilted. Then it burnt to the ground before being sucked up by a tornado and spit out again. Then it was burnt again for good measure.

Catch my drift?

Detroit has lost 14 of 19 since Smith went down. There’s a myriad of reasons for that. Blake Griffin is the only consistent source of offense. The interior defense is a wreck. The perimeter shooting is colder than downtown Detroit in late January.

But the bench, one that played well early in the year, has tanked.

Pistons coach Dwane Casey has done plenty of tinkering with his rotation this season, but he’s primarily stuck with three bench lineups:

A. Smith, Jose Calderon, Langston Galloway, Stanley Johnson and Zaza Pachulia.

B. Smith, Bruce Brown, Galloway, Johnson and Pachulia.

C. Calderon, Luke Kennard, Galloway, Johnson and Pachulia.

If you had to rank them from best performing to worst, you’d probably rank them in that order (A, B, C) right?

Well, according to NBA.com, the Pistons’ BEST lineup (at least 15 minutes together) this season has been the first group. That’s not just best bench lineup. That’s best overall. The Pistons boast an offensive rating of 119.6 and a defensive rating of 77.1 with that group on the floor, good for a 42.5 net rating.

The second group, one that saw a lot of time together before Brown moved into the starting lineup, had a net rating of 32.0 in 34 minutes. The offense with Brown wasn’t as sharp (106.7) but the defense was even better (74.7), which checks out.

That leaves the Calderon-led bench, aka the bane of the fanbase’s recent existence. The group that has made its name blowing big leads over the past month has been as bad as your eyes have told you. They boast a net rating of -20.9 thanks to a 73.7 offensive rating and a 94.6 defensive rating.

Here’s the thing about Smith — who Casey said could return against the Clippers on Saturday — he’s not the best player, nor is he even that good in general. But he pushes the pace. He plays fast. He pushes the tempo when he’s on the floor, creating easier shots for all of the guys who can’t create their own.

The Pistons play at one of the slower paces in the NBA, averaging just 99.86 possessions per game. A big part of that is the glacial pace at which they play with Griffin and Andre Drummond on the floor. The game speeds up quite a bit with Smith at the helm.

Calderon’s dead lineup (you know, the opposite of Golden State’s death lineup) is playing at a 104.4 pace. They get the ball and go, but when the point guard isn’t a threat to penetrate and score, it’s easy to stay home on shooters. It doesn’t help that Father Time also stole Calderon’s 3-point ability right with his remaining athleticism.

Smith is an attacker and, when he’s on the floor, the pace jumps to 110.9 and the unit plays pretty well. Considering we haven’t seen much of a bench unit featuring both Smith and Kennard (over Calderon/Brown), this could be something Casey looks at going forward.

But this is all just a small part of the puzzle. The Pistons aren’t competing for anything more than a bottom seed and quick playoff exit. They can’t tank because they’re “burdened” with an All-Star talent in Griffin that probably can’t be moved. This is where they are.

Smith’s value to this team is weird. He’s out of place with the slow-moving starters, hurting more than he helps at times, but he’s a dynamo with the less-talented bench. He’s so, so important, even if he his talent says he’s an average-at-best player.

No matter when he returns, he isn’t going to save the Pistons.

But, right now, they need all the help they can get.