No player symbolizes Joe Dumars’ career as a basketball executive more than Josh Smith.
Smith figured prominently into Dumars’ greatest triumph, the 2004 NBA Championship, and was also the centerpiece free agent acquisition in the supersized with super-limited range lineup experiment that proved to be Dumars’ final ignoble act running the Detroit Pistons. The Pistons finally stop paying for that costly experiment after this season officially comes to an end — they used the stretch provision when they cut Smith nearly six (!) years ago, prolonging the amount of time they paid him but reducing the yearly salary cap hit — an unforced error of the ill-fated Stan Van Gundy regime, but I digress.
Let’s go all the way back to the beginning. No, not that fateful night an agreement was struck with Smith in 2013 — the true beginning. The Pistons wouldn’t be 2004 NBA Champions without Smith. Or, rather, the No. 17 pick in the 2004 NBA Draft that eventually became Smith. The Pistons owned that pick as a result of a trade that shipped a previous Dumars blunder (Rodney White) to Denver. Dumars’ talent evaluation skills could be questioned but he had a knack for realizing a pick was a bust and shipping them out for future draft picks before everyone else had caught on that they were bums. He also once drafted a dude with narcolepsy, but, again, a story for another time.
The Smith pick was used to acquire Rasheed Wallace from Atlanta, a move that took the Pistons defense from good to historically smothering and made them champions and one of the most successful franchises of the 2000s.
A Beginning Full of Promise
Smith was selected by the Hawks as a lanky, athletic high school prospect out of basketball factory Oakhill Academy. As a rookie, he started and played significant minutes on a 13-win Hawks team, followed by contributing to 26-win and 30-win teams his second and third seasons, respectively.
By 2008, the Hawks improved to 37 wins and a loss to the eventual champion Celtics in the first round of the playoffs. Boston was a title favorite and Atlanta only made the playoffs because most of the Eastern Conference was more interested in jockeying for lottery position. The series should’ve been a blowout, but the Hawks improbably stretched the Celtics to seven games. Zaza Pachulia’s headbutt, Al Horford’s steadiness, Joe Johnson’s ascension into a top-tier isolation scorer, and the athleticism/energy provided by Smith and Josh Childress made the series more entertaining than it had any right to be.
Smith would play five more seasons for the Hawks, and the team would make the playoffs each of those seasons. And though Smith, as a 6-foot-11 freakish athlete who could pass, defend, block shots, run the floor, and score, was the most physically gifted player on the roster, he was never better than the third best player on the team with Horford and Johnson around.
The Perimeter ‘Game’ of Josh Smith
For whatever it’s worth, Smith was also a fantasy basketball monster. From 2006 to 2013, he was the only player in the NBA to average 1.0+ steals per game, 1.5 blocks per game, 3.0 assists per game, and 7.0 rebounds per game in each season. For comparative purposes, Kevin Garnett only did that once during that stretch. Joakim Noah also did it once and Marcus Camby did it twice. Smith did it SEVEN TIMES!
Still, despite a unique, statsheet-filling game, Smith faced almost constant criticism. Namely, he shot too many threes — that might seem like a wild accusation in the modern context of brutish centers such as Brook Lopez and Arron Baynes shooting threes simply to remain relevant.
But in Smith’s case, there is actual evidence to support the calls for him to stop letting it fly. From the moment he came into the league, it was a given Smith would be gifted as many open three-point looks by defenses daring him to shoot. Smith obliged with his patented sling-shot left-handed hoists 1-3 times per game. Except for the one season he inexplicably just … stopped doing that really annoying thing.
In 2009-10, Smith attempted just seven three-pointers all season. Other than his rookie season, he never averaged less than one attempt per game, and that average got as high as 3.4 per game in later seasons. He shot only 28% from three for his career but attempted more than 1,500 three-pointers in his career.
The season he didn’t though? He had the best season of his career. It was the only season he shot above 50% overall. He had career highs in assists, steals, blocked shots, and offensive rebounds. He drew almost constant praise for his newfound discipline.
Then? It just vanished. The following season, he averaged two attempts per game and never looked back.
A Dumars Favorite
His tantalizing and unique productivity didn’t escape the attention of fantasy basketball GMs or Dumars living in a fantasy world. Smith was an almost constant subject of trade rumors connected to the Pistons. In that era, I was writing for MLive’s Detroit Pistons coverage team and then PistonPowered. The comments sections were filled with fans who came up with an insane number of Tayshaun Prince-for-Smith trade scenarios. Beat writers regularly answered mailbag questions about Smith.
Smith was the rare player who seemed both skilled enough to be an upgrade on Detroit’s roster and flawed enough that he was gettable for a Pistons team that had precious few tradable assets.
Eventually, Dumars got his man. Smith signed the most expensive free agent contract in franchise history (an impressive accomplishment considering the almost immediate albatrosses handed out to Ben Gordon, Richard Hamilton, and Charlie Villanueva), a four-year, $54 million deal.
Life Comes at You Fast
It was a disaster. Smith was best suited to play power forward or center. The team’s two best young players at the time were bigs Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe. Rather than making one come off the bench, or better yet, trading one, OR BEST YET, not signing Smith in the first place, Dumars and overmatched head coach Maurice Cheeks slotted Smith in at small forward.
Ideally, the Pistons would’ve surrounded their trio of bigs with shooters. That … is not what happened. Their most reliable perimeter threats percentage-wise in their regular rotation were Kyle Singler and Jonas Jerebko. Conceptually, Brandon Jennings, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and Villanueva could shoot threes, but none was better than 33% in reality. Guards Rodney Stuckey and Will Bynum somehow had less range than Smith. So putting Smith at small forward, in lineups with bigs who needed space inside, only encouraged his worst tendencies. He attempted a career-high 265 threes (3.4 per game), making just 26% of them. His defense also slipped. At 28, even with his athleticism, he was no longer equipped to chase around wing players full-time.
Dumars zigged when the rest of the league zagged. Lineups trended smaller and more shooter heavy, and Dumars went huge with no shooters. The results were predictably ugly. Cheeks was fired 50 games into his only season as coach. The team finished 8-24 over their last 32 games, missed the playoffs, and Dumars was fired and replaced with Stan Van Gundy after the season.
Van Gundy’s offense has always relied on floor-spacing shooters. Smith was never going to fit, and he also had negative trade value thanks to his horrendous first season in Detroit and massive contract. The Pistons stretched him less than two years into his four-year deal.
Smith’s Detroit tenure was a disaster. But is there an alternate universe where Smith could’ve excelled? Well, yeah.
A Player Before His Time? Maybe???
Smith was a decade early. If he’d come into this NBA, he’d easily fit on most rosters as an athletic center who could run, block shots, rebound, and finish. His excellent high-post passing abilities would be deadly when paired with great perimeter shooting guards in a fast-paced offense. And, with the right coach, his inability to turn down open threes wouldn’t even be that problematic. Dwane Casey still lets Thon Maker shoot threes. If Thon has a green light, Smith would too.
Instead, Smith’s unique game was constantly constrained by antiquated positional philosophies. At least his fantasy stats will always appreciate his creative approach to basketball.