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Without Josh Smith, the Pistons are Stan Van Gundy's kind of team

Why has Detroit won seven straight since paying Josh Smith to go away? Because they are finally playing like Stan Van Gundy's successful teams of years past.

Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Technically, this is not all because of Josh Smith. The Detroit Pistons also recently got sharpshooter Jodie Meeks back from injury, sneakily traded for Phoenix Suns deep shooter Anthony Tolliver and changed Andre Drummond's role back to the rim-rolling, backboard-dominating, paint-protecting Godzilla it should have been all along instead of spoon-feeding him post-ups.

But all that is window dressing. The Pistons have won seven in a row since sending Smith on paid leave and even their winning streak underplays their dramatic facelift. For 28 games, this team traded eye rolls, blown defensive rotations and bricks in front of an audience that resembled an empty bar near closing time.

They aren't just winning games. They're reinventing themselves and showing the Cavaliers what their ideal self should become. They're storming into the NBA's most daunting back-to-back and walking away with consecutive victories over league royalty.

Smith's departure isn't responsible for all of this, but it sure helps. Even if he were an angel, his game disrupted the fluidity the Pistons are now exhibiting. The issue is that Smith has almost every ability, except for the ability to properly carry any of them out. He never found confidence or consistency in any of his potential niches and thus kept following the path of least resistance, like taking long jump shots or freelancing on defense.

Such a player is an enigma for any coach, but especially so for Stan Van Gundy, who built his Magic teams around shooting, discipline and the pragmatism that comes with having Dwight Howard. None of those qualities describe Josh Smith. Everybody on Van Gundy's teams has a defined role, but Smith's game colors outside the lines. Van Gundy could either feature him or bench him, and early on he chose to feature him with disastrous results.

With Smith's departure and a number of other factors, roles are coming into focus. Van Gundy finally has his kind of team and the early results show the power of a Van Gundy Team. This is how the absence of Smith has fundamentally changed the Pistons.

2 is better than 3

No, not in terms of three-point shots, but rather the number of big men to please. Under Mo Cheeks, the Pistons fared decently when any two of Smith, Drummond or Greg Monroe played, but horribly when all three shared the court. That initially gave Van Gundy confidence in keeping his roster intact, but he quickly found that even being forced to play two at once at all times was limiting. Van Gundy couldn't spread the floor like he did around Howard in Orlando, a significant issue because both Monroe and Drummond are best playing as centers.

Without Smith, Van Gundy can split his remaining two big man's minutes and pair them with plenty of space. Monroe and Drummond technically start, but they're only playing an average of 16 minutes together and even less in the past two wins in Texas. The rest of the time, Drummond or Monroe is paired with either Jonas Jerebko or Tolliver, shooting power forwards that can space the floor, run around to occupy help defenders and hedge on pick and rolls to allow the two centers to stay near the basket.

Suddenly, Drummond and Monroe have acres of space all to themselves around the hoop, whether it's on post-ups ...

post up

... Or pick and rolls.

p&r

This is a simple concept, but one that still eludes many teams. If help defenders are even a little indecisive coming down to stop Drummond running down the lane because they don't want to allow their man to hit a three, it makes all the difference. Even if those defenders realize the giant charging towards the basket is a bigger threat than their own man, the fact that they're spread to the three-point line makes it harder to address him.

The same applies to the two men on the ball. Worrying about Drummond or Monroe frees whichever point guard to come off the pick cleanly. It's why Brandon Jennings was on fire earlier in the streak and why D.J. Augustin lit up the Mavericks on Wednesday.

jennings layup

augustin

Space makes everyone better offensively. And without Smith, Van Gundy finally has the flexibility to spread teams out.

Running is better than walking

The Pistons are still tearing teams up even when both Monroe and Drummond are on the floor together. To solve any spacing conundrum, they're doing something they should have done long ago: run. Indeed, the Pistons are playing faster since losing Smith. Detroit averages 95.6 possessions per game for the season, putting it near the bottom of the league. Since Smith's departure, the Pistons are at 97.6 possessions per game, a two-possession increase.

That may not sound like a lot, but Detroit isn't just jacking the first shot it sees. The Pistons are pushing the ball off missed shots and getting the ball into the frontcourt faster, so there's more time to pack in the off-ball motion and options required to move the ball more effectively.

Take this possession, for example.

drag screen

Drummond grabbed a rebound and all five Pistons moved in harmony. Both big men sprinted down the middle of the floor, with Drummond continuing on to occupy Tyson Chandler's attention. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope already flew down the opposite wing and Kyle Singler kept running to the left wing. Finally, Monroe stopped at the perfect spot just outside the three-point line and set a little rub screen to spring Jennings going to his left. The Mavericks weren't ready for any of this and gave up a layup.

Would those five Pistons have run that hard earlier in the season? That's where the Smith effect comes into play.

In half-court situations, the Pistons are fooling teams by running a pick and roll on one side, then swinging the ball quickly into another pick and roll or dribble handoff. The defense thinks it's defending one sequence and is caught out of position. It can't stop the action Detroit actually wants to run.

pick and roll

This is where the return of Meeks helps most. Meeks is a limited dribbler and playmaker, but he grew as an off-ball player in his year with the Lakers, becoming more than just a shooter. Sensing that he could use Meeks like he once used J.J. Redick, Van Gundy handed Meeks a generous contract that was mocked endlessly.

We're seeing the reason Van Gundy did so now. Meeks charges off pindown screens, running around like a Kyle Korver in training. He crisply executes dribble handoffs, rubbing his man into the screener without having to slow down and rapidly processing the decisions in front of him even if it means eluding a defender.

meeks1

He'll realize he can get to the hoop before opponents have time to exploit his ball-handling. He'll also realize he can drop it off to his screener -- whether rolling to the rim or popping to the perimeter -- before opponents can send additional help.

meeks3

meeks2

Meeks, like every other Pistons player, has a purpose now. No longer must Van Gundy figure out where he must hide Smith to do the least damage to everyone else. He can now move his wings around to space the floor, cut to the hoop and distract help defenders. This in turn opens more lanes for Monroe posting up and either Monroe or Drummond rolling to the rim.

Even more space is manufactured because while Monroe or Drummond have trouble spacing the floor for each other, both are elite offensive rebounders, which gives their defenders a slight pause when rotating. Otherwise, Chandler would have cut this play off before it began.

chandler

More time means more motion, and more motion means more openings.

One rim protector is better than two

Detroit's offense has undergone a bigger transformation, but the defense is significantly better too. As I've covered several times, Smith's defense in Detroit was often just as bad as his offense. Sometimes that was through a lack of effort or concentration, fixable problems that are now being fixed in Houston.

But fundamentally, there was a different issue: Smith gravitates toward protecting the rim. He likes to block shots and he's also quite good at preventing easy layups from going down. That's OK if someone else is capable of stepping out on the floor when necessary, but that doesn't describe either Monroe or Drummond. The Pistons needed Smith to focus on guarding his man and rotating into problem areas more than they needed someone else in the paint. Instead, he drifted, freelanced and created more confusion than necessary.

That confusion was a problem when the team's best rim protector is also 21 years old without much NBA experience. Without Smith, Drummond is the undisputed lord of the paint and everyone else is willing and able to go out of their way to keep it that way. Drummond gets to focus on one thing only, and everyone else stays on task. Even Monroe is doing his part, stepping out high on pick and rolls when asked to contain perimeter threats. (This only applies when both share the court. When Drummond is out, Monroe takes his place).

This is the formula Van Gundy used with Howard with the Magic and is finally able to replicate. Drummond still makes mistakes, but he's learning. Putting him around the basket allows for plays like this even when he's not blocking shots.

drummond1

drummond2

This is therefore the rare situation where one rim protector is better than two. Van Gundy has always preached simplicity and repetition with his schemes. Now, he has players willing and able to execute that.

***

Detroit won't keep playing this well. Skeptics will correctly point out that the Pistons are shooting the lights out, which isn't likely to continue. This is true to some degree: the Pistons have an effective field goal percentage of 48 on shots where a defender is within 0-2 feet since Dec. 22 and a whopping 53 percent eFG when a player dribbles at least seven times, per NBA.com's tracking data.

The question then becomes simple: what is the chicken and what is the egg? Are the Pistons making more shots because of all the factors above, or does their ability to make shots give them the pep in their steps necessary to execute properly? Only time will provide a clear answer to this question.

But let me throw this out there for consideration. In the first five games of this streak, Jennings posted an effective field goal percentage of 67 percent. That was bolstered by a breakout performance against Cleveland, when he tossed in some absurd long shots even by his own standards.

In the last two games of this streak, Jennings shot 12-36 from the field. Against the Spurs and Mavericks on the road. And yet, the Pistons won anyway.

This isn't a mirage. This is nothing less than the Pistons transforming into a Van Gundy Team.

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