How J-Smoove Can Find His Groove

by Spencer Suk

NBA free agency is winding down.  Yet, a couple high-profile names still don’t know where they will be playing next year: restricted free agents Eric Bledsoe and Greg Monroe.  The former is in the middle of a contract negotiation meltdown with the Suns, pushing his relationship with the team to “the verge of [being] irreparable."  The latter is disgruntled with the current roster makeup of his Detroit Pistons.  More specifically, Monroe has a problem with a certain player:

Josh Smith.

I understand that Smith and Monroe share the same natural position (power forward) and do not complement each other’s games, but Monroe is at the point where he is on the verge of signing a one-year qualifying offer from the Pistons instead of agreeing to a lucrative long-term deal.  The implied message is that Monroe will flee the Motor City next summer if Smith is still there.

And believe me, Monroe is definitely not the only one who wants Smith gone.  Pistons fans and critics have bemoaned Smith’s hefty 4-year, $54 million contract since the minute it was signed last offseason.  You can’t really blame them either, as Smith disappointed on and off the court this year.  He shot a putrid, career-low 41.9% from the field and created commotion in the locker room after being benched by Coach Maurice Cheeks.  Hell, the Pistons’ front office even tried dealing Smith to the Kings until they realized they wouldn’t get anything in return.

But the entire league seems to be forgetting something: Josh Smith is really, really talented.  He is an ultra-athletic hybrid forward capable of making spectacular plays on both ends of the floor:

If you think Smith is just a human highlight reel who fills the gaps with boneheaded plays, here are some stats for you:

J-Smoove reached 1,000 career blocks faster than anyone in NBA history.  At the tender age of 24, Smith hit the milestone faster than 7-foot behemoths like Hakeem Olajuwon and David Robinson.  While Smith had the advantage of entering the NBA straight out of high school, this feat is still ridiculous considering Smith is only 6’9”.

At 28 years of age, Smith is still protecting the rim at an elite level.  Last year, Smith limited opponents to 47.1% shooting at the rim, good enough for 10th best in the league for players who were in the situation 5 times a game.

To top it off, Smith is one of three players to average 15 points, 7 rebounds, 2 blocks, and 1 steal for his entire career since he entered the league in 2004.  The others? New Orleans’ rising super-duper-star Anthony Davis and the league’s only back-to-back-to-back Defensive Player of the Year Dwight Howard.  Not bad company…

So why does the league treat Josh Smith as a walking salary cap figure rather than the sublime talent he is?  The answer is rather obvious: his shot selection, especially behind the 3-point line.

Smith is one of my favorite players in the league to watch.  I mean, I watched a handful of Pistons games on NBA League Pass last year despite their significant struggles.  But I always ended up switching games when Smith launched his second or third ill-advised 3-pointer, too frustrated to suffer through more of the same.  By the end of the season, Smith was shooting a horrid 26.4% from beyond the arc.

The thing that really gets me is that Smith seemed to have learned his lesson back in the 2009-10 season when he attempted only 7 3-pointers the entire year and enjoyed the most successful season of his career.  Smith shot 50.5% from the field, the only time he has ever surpassed the 50% mark, and posted a career-high 9.3 win share.  The league even recognized the maturation of his game, as he garnered attention for Most Improved Player of the Year.  Yet, Smith showed signs of amnesia, launching 154 3-pointers the following season.

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And last year, Smith blew us out of the water with a whopping 265 3-point attempts.  His 3.4 attempts per game surpassed those of great shooters like Ty Lawson (3.3), Kawhi Leonard (2.8), Mike Miller (2.8), and even a hurt Kobe Bryant (2.7 in 6 games).  I’ll give Smith more slack for last year’s attempt total considering he was pushed out to the arc with Monroe and Drummond clogging up the paint, but he still launched 2.6 3-pointers per game on 30.3% shooting the previous year on the Atlanta Hawks.  Simply unacceptable.

So while the obvious answer is to tell Josh Smith not to jack up shots behind the 3-point line, the implementation of this plan is where things gets tricky.

In order to create proper spacing on the floor, the Pistons need multiple guys who can shoot 3’s, but this is basically impossible if you have three big men on the floor who can’t shoot from the outside.  This leaves me with two possible solutions:

The first would be to sign-and-trade Greg Monroe, a young and skilled big man who is coveted by the rest of the league.  Trading Smith isn’t really an option (unless you want a bunch of useless contracts in return) with the $40.5 million left on his deal and his reputation as a constant headache.  The Pistons could get solid pieces in return to fill out a roster that needs some help at point guard (Brandon Jennings has been more miserable than Josh Smith) and small forward.

The other option would be to stagger Monroe, Drummond, and Smith’s minutes so that only two of the three are on the court at the same time.  An even more extreme measure would be to bring either Monroe or Smith off the bench (this would probably have devastating effects, with either Monroe or Smith being too furious to play for new Head Coach Stan Van Gundy).  But before you call me crazy, take a look at the five-man units for Detroit that posted a positive +/- in over 50 minutes of action last year:

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Sure enough, only one of the five successful units had Smith, Monroe, and Drummond in at the same time.  However, something we weren’t expecting popped up: Detroit’s two best lineups contained both Smith and Monroe, showing the two can co-exist as long as a third big isn’t in the lineup.  Unfortunately for those two, Drummond is blossoming into one of the league's premier centers and is the building block for the Pistons’ franchise; in other words, Drummond is not going to be the one who loses minutes.

Stan Van Gundy faces some interesting decisions as he is serving as both coach and general manager for the Pistons.  Whether he decides to move either Monroe or Smith or opts to keep them both, he must do one thing for sure: find a way for J-Smoove to step inside that tempting 3-point arc.