When the Pistons waived Josh Smith on Dec. 22, the idea that they'd suddenly start winning and turn into a solid team was a top notch Twitter joke. What if that was holding them back? Wouldn't that be funny!?
Except now it's sort of happened. Since then, the Pistons have won four straight games and the Houston Rockets, who signed Smith on Dec. 24, have lost three of their last five.
Smith is a frustratingly talented player who always seems to be shortchanging his own abilities on a basketball court. In Atlanta, he was at least a strong defender and rebounder even while taking jump shots that rarely went in. Since signing in Detroit, however, he's been so bad that the Pistons decided they'd be better off cutting him and paying his contract until 2020 than to keeping him on the team.
So far, it's working for the Pistons, all while Houston has dropped a spot in the Western Conference playoff standings. But how real is the Josh Smith effect? As we'll demonstrate, it doesn't come close to explaining both team's recent change of fortune in a short period of time.
More on Josh Smith
Blame Stan Van Gundy for the Smith debacle
Coaching Smith was surely no picnic, but Van Gundy ignored the bailout offers and in the process dug Detroit deeper into a hole.
More on Josh Smith
For the Pistons
Still, the Pistons only had five wins in 28 tries before this streak, so it's not just the competition. Let's look at the two things Josh Smith is infamous for doing: taking terrible contested jumpers that he rarely makes and being a ball stopper on offense.
Assists aren't the only method to measure ball movement but it's usually a good indicator of how well an offense is humming along. Detroit's assist percentage -- the percent of possessions on which they record an assist -- has actually fallen in the four games since Smith was cut, from 58 to 55 percent. However, they are turning the ball over less and have a better assist to turnover ratio.
The Pistons are also taking a fewer jumpers in the 16 to 24 feet range (from 12 a game to 10), which is a positive sign that could directly correlate to Smith's absence. On the other hand, their 3-point attempts are way up, from 23 a game to 31. The big difference here is that the Pistons are making them now.
A better explanation for Detroit's resurgence exists: the return of Jodie Meeks, a floor spacer the Pistons desperately needed. Meeks made his season debut on Dec. 12 and the Pistons are 6-4 since. They beat the Suns and the Kings before losing to the Clippers, Mavericks, Raptors and Nets. They're scoring 11 more points per 100 possessions on offense in the 10 games since Meeks came back and Detroit has gone from a 48 to a 53 percent true shooting percentage.
Smith didn't fit in Detroit and his absence is addition by subtraction. But the schedule and a healthy team are the principal reasons for the Pistons' four-game winning streak.
For the Rockets
Smith has somehow been even worse in Houston than he was in Detroit. He's playing 25 minutes a night and averaging 8.4 points on 35 percent shooting. He has only hit 1-8 of his 3-pointers, all while turning the ball over three times a game. He certainly hasn't helped the Rockets win these games.
But again, Houston's schedule is at play here. Friday's blowout loss to the Pelicans was bad, but the two before that were a four-point loss in San Antonio and a one-point loss to Washington, who are both excellent teams.
In fact, the Rockets' key statistical numbers have been almost exactly the same before and after the Smith signing. Their assist percentage, assist to turnover ratio, rebounding percentage and true shooting percentage in the five games since Smith signed are all within one percentage point of where they were in the 27 games prior.
The problem hasn't been the offense, but the defense, which has jumped from allowing 97.5 points per 100 possessions to 102.9. Finally something we can blame on Smith, right?
Not exactly. The Rockets are allowing 15 fewer points when he's on the floor than when he's sitting, meaning its the bench and non-Smith lineups who are hurting Houston right now. A lot of this has to do with Smith starting and the lineups that include him, of course, but at worst he's not hurting Houston on defense yet.
Will either trend continue?
With Meeks in the rotation and the offense functioning much better, the Pistons will continue beating bad teams much more often. It sounds crazy, but Detroit's only 4.5 games back from the No. 8 seed in the Eastern Conference and is still a playoff contender despite their 9-23 record. However, it's unlikely their current win streak lasts much longer because games against the Kings, Spurs, Mavericks and Hawks are coming up.
Houston should also be encouraged despite hitting a rough patch. They also added Corey Brewer to their rotation and two mid-season acquisitions brings a necessary adjustment period with it. The Rockets are the second-best defense in the league and that mark was reached without Smith.
Smith needs to play better offensively, but the chances of that happening are better as he gets more comfortable. He's definitely shown that his defensive impact can help Houston continue to be one of the most difficult teams in the league to score on.
Again: the surface level analysis suggests Smith is the problem, but a deeper look shows otherwise.
All stats for this article were provided by NBA.com.