When the Detroit Pistons signed Josh Smith two summers ago, they envisioned a supersized frontcourt with young big men Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond that would overwhelm a league growing smaller by the day. As everyone else zigged, they'd zag. The fit wasn't perfect, but the collective talent would figure it out.
It's gone so badly that new team president and coach Stan Van Gundy made the unprecedented decision to waive Smith and use the stretch provision on the $28 million remaining on his contract after this season. Smith was so harmful that Van Gundy felt the removal of his presence for nothing was worth having to eat his remaining salary this year and over $5 million each additional season until 2020 (!).
There were many that figured Smith wouldn't work in Detroit at all, but there were also some, including me, that were optimistic when the signing happened and doubly optimistic when a coach with Van Gundy's reputation arrived this summer. In the end, though, Van Gundy found it even more difficult to work Smith in. With his Pistons floundering at 5-23 after a loss to a shorthanded Nets team, Van Gundy decided he couldn't wait any longer.
So, why did Smith fail so spectacularly in Detroit?
He never reined it in
Any hope that Smith would fit in on the wing was dashed quickly when it became clear he wasn't going to change his trigger-happy ways. Smith took nearly eight shots a game from outside of 15 feet in his first month with the Pistons. He made less than two per contest. That includes a ridiculous 25 percent mark on above-the-break threes on four attempts a game.
That set a horrible tone that continued throughout his Pistons tenure. He continued to flair away from beyond the arc with no success last season, hitting 26 percent on three and a half attempts per game. When he was open -- which was often -- he shot it as if he was trying to prove a point to teams every single time. He forgot that he's open for a reason.
The Pistons can't be surprised that Smith chucked from long range with no success because that's what he's done his entire career. But the hope was that Smith might tone it down just a little bit and use his passing skills to alleviate any spacing issues and set up Monroe and Drummond around the rim. Their evidence: the Hawks occasionally played Smith at small forward the previous year with Al Horford and either Zaza Pachulia or Johan Petro, including in their playoff loss to the Indiana Pacers. The Smith/Horford/Pachulia trio outscored opponents by 2.3 points per 100 possessions, giving Detroit hope a similar arrangement with better players could work.
Alas, it didn't because nobody was willing to adjust their games. When he wasn't hoisting long jumpers, Smith monopolized post-ups, sending Monroe further from the basket and leaving Drummond to scamper along the baseline waiting for passes that never came. The Smith/Monroe relationship was particularly disastrous. They too often battled for the same position, with neither able to play on the perimeter like Horford so often did to accommodate Smith in Atlanta. There's a reason Monroe reportedly wanted Smith dealt.
Van Gundy had chances to trade Smith for spare parts, but kept him in part because on/off data suggested the Pistons were actually a decent team when any two of the three big men were on the court and merely stunk when all three played at the same time. As long as Van Gundy could sell one of the three in coming off the bench, the awkward situation could be resolved.
But injuries torpedoed that plan, along with something Van Gundy didn't necessarily anticipate.
Where to Now?
Josh Smith is bad at things he once was good at
The jokes about Smith's shot selection haven't stopped, but he's actually cut some long jumpers out of his diet. He's only taking 1.3 threes per contest this year, less than half of what he did last season. Forty percent of his shots are inside of five feet compared to 32 percent last year.
The problem: he's not making those shots anymore. Look at the difference between last year's shot chart...
And this year's...
Smith's inability to score inside hints at a more damaging problem: his declining athleticism. Nobody would call the 29-year-old Smith over the hill, but part of his appeal even when shooting too many jumpers was his ability to score on the block, race the length of the court and dunk on anyone. The Hawks lived with his deficiencies because of everything else he brought to the table.
But he might not be able to do any of those things anymore, which just exacerbates his inability to shoot from the outside. The only time he made athletic plays for the Pistons was when he drove left and threw the same jump crosscourt pass to the opposite corner that sometimes worked, sometimes was picked off by smart teams and sometimes did this.
If Smith really is declining, that goes beyond Detroit being a poor fit.
Smith barely tried on defense
This was most disappointing because Smith had a reputation for being a versatile and intelligent defender in Atlanta. As some idiot wrote before the 2013-14 season:
Specifically, it's time for us to recognize Smith's defense. It's not perfect -- he tends to surrender position too easily and can sometimes fall asleep when defending Stretch 4s -- but you aren't going to find many players that can do as many things as Smith can on that end.
In Atlanta, Smith defended wings and post players, all while displaying great instincts rotating to help his teammates and protect the rim. Everyone knew Smith was a questionable offensive fit in Detroit, but optimists believed his defense would make life easier for the slow-footed Monroe and the green Drummond.
Instead, Smith stopped trying. He was beat on backdoor cuts. He was beat off the dribble. He was beat defending the pick and roll poorly. He was beat because he stood still instead of making a rotation. He was beat because he pointed at someone else to make the rotation he was supposed to make. These are just a few examples from the last two seasons.
It's no surprise the Pistons were a worse defensive team with Smith on the court in each of the last two seasons.
Smith should be an impact defender. That he wasn't speaks to his lack of effort.
Smith wouldn't be the first player rehabilitated on a winning team. Boris Diaw was even worse for one of the worst teams of all time three years ago; now, he's a key player on a championship team. Zach Randolph was salary-dumped multiple times before rising again in Memphis. Smith plays the same position as both players and has definite skills to offer, particularly if he rededicates himself defensively.
But he'll have to be a lot better than what he showed in Detroit, where he proved to be Joe Dumars' biggest free-agent disaster. Considering Dumars' history, that's saying something.