Josh Smith was one of the bigger names in free agency last summer—although it could be argued there was only one big name in free agency last summer (Dwight Howard) with a bunch of littler names (Smith, Brandon Jennings, Monta Ellis, et al) wanting to be paid as if they were, in fact, big names, only to find disappointment.
Smith, for instance, was thought by some to be looking for a max deal. He didn’t find one, settling for four years and $54 million from the Detroit Pistons.
In his nine years with the Atlanta Hawks, Smith was something of an enigma—an athletic defender with long arms, terrific ball-handling skills and a fatal willingness to take any and every jump shot ever presented to him by a defense.
While with the Hawks, Smith averaged 1.4 3-point attempts per game and made 28.3 percent of them. But his love affair with the 3-point line ebbed and flowed. In 2009-10, his final season under Mike Woodson in Atlanta, Smith limited himself to seven 3-point attempts in 81 games. That came after attempting 110, 152, 99 and 87 the previous four years.
Not surprisingly, Smith shot a career-best 50.5 percent from the floor, had a career-high 4.2 assists per game, upped his rebounding to a career-high 8.7 per game, rang up 9.3 win shares and posted a player efficiency rating of 21, up from 17.2 the year before and two points better than his previous career-high of 19 in 2007-08.
If really appeared, that at age 24, J-Smoove had started to figure some things out.
He did, just not the things many—including former Hawks coach Larry Drew—would have liked him to figure out. Primary among those was his addiction to taking 3-pointers.
His attempts per game shot back up, to two per game in 2010-11, 1.7 in 2011-12 and a career-high 2.6 in 2012-13. His success with those shots? Not good: 30.2 percent.
When Smith came to the Pistons over the summer, the worry was that the choice of Joe Dumars to go huge up front could harm the opportunities and efficiency of young bigs Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond.
It really hasn’t, but only because Smith has been content to sit outside and hoist jumpers. And man, is he hoisting.
Smith is shooting 27.2 percent on an almost unfathomable 4.5 3-point attempts per game.
Of course, his percentage from inside the arc is only 44.7, as he is settling far too often for midrange attempts, as evidenced by the shot charts below. The first is his basic shot chart—filled with lots of red, indicating Smith is below-average from just about every area on the court. The second is the distribution of the 335 shots he has taken this season through Friday night’s win over the Brooklyn Nets.
The first question is an obvious one. Why so many above the break 3s? Smith has launched 91 3s from above the break in just 24 games. It’s just not that efficient a shot, particularly when you’re only sinking 28.6 percent of them.
But it could be because he’s even worse at the more efficient corner 3, where he is just 2-for-7 from the right corner and 0-for-6 from the left.
But he makes up for it with his intelligent shot selection when he’s inside the arc. Except, no … no, he doesn’t.
His shot distribution finds that almost 23 percent of his shots—77—are from the dead zone of shooting, the dreaded mid-range, where Smith is making just 23.4 percent (18-for-77).
The most frustrating part about it is that Smith is an able and very willing passer in the paint when he does decide to drive.
That all having been said, the Pistons offense may be less than aesthetically pleasing but it has been brutally, brutally effective. The Pistons lead the league in points in the paint, where they generate 64.2 percent of their points. Of their 915 makes, 505 of them are within five feet of the cup.
That brutal effectiveness is fueled, at least in part, by Detroit being the best offensive rebounding team in the NBA at 13.8 per game.
That’s a good thing, because the Pistons are next-to-last in the NBA in 3-point shooting (31.4 percent) and dead last in free-throw shooting (67.2 percent).
For as clunky and inefficient as Detroit’s offensive sets can look—complete with lousy spacing and abysmal shot selection at times—the Pistons are right in the middle of the league (16th) in offensive rating at 101.9 (points per 100 possessions), they’re 17th in the league in turnover percentage (16.1), 18th in effective field goal percentage (48.8) and 23rd in true shooting percentage (52.0).
Don’t try to make sense of those numbers as a group. I did and it just made my head spin.
Smith’s advanced metrics are stunningly all over the place (OK, not so stunning). He’s got an offensive rating of 103.4 (somehow) and a defensive mark of 104.0. His 42.7 percent effective field-goal shooting is second-worst on the club among players who actually play (so, yes, excluding Peyton Siva and Luigi Datome). His offensive rebounding percentage of 4.0 is actually worse than that of Kyle Singler (now there’s a prop bet that could have made someone a fortune a few months ago).
The Pistons are treading water at 11-13, which in the Eastern Conference makes them a solid contender for the No. 3 seed.
If Maurice Cheeks can somehow get Smith’s shot selection reined in to merely ill-advised rather than galatically awful, this team could go places (and by places, I mean the second round, where they become roadkill to either Miami or Indiana).