Nobody understood why Josh Smith and the Detroit Pistons agreed on a contract in 2013. Seven years later, the question remains unanswered.
An uber-athletic 6’9” forward who could handle the ball, Smith averaged 17.5 points, 8.4 rebounds, 4.2 assists, 1.8 blocks and 1.2 steals per game. The only other players to replicate those numbers in the decade were Kevin Durant and Giannis Antetokounmpo (2x).
The Hawks were talented with quality pieces in Al Horford, Jeff Teague and Kyle Korver. But the departure of All-Star Joe Johnson the previous offseason left an already middling team without a clear direction.
Coupled with a second straight first-round exit, this time to the Indiana Pacers, Smith took it upon himself to pursue greener pastures in the prime of his career — he was 27 — which somehow landed him on the Detroit Pistons on a four-year, $54 million deal.
While Atlanta reached its sixth straight playoff appearance, the summer of 2013 saw Detroit wrap up another underwhelming season, finishing 29-53, good for 11th in the Eastern Conference.
A playoff absence wasn’t anything new to these Pistons, who had firmly moved on from their contender status of the mid-2000s and hadn’t seen the postseason since 2009, a four-year streak that was the franchise’s longest in 30 years.
The problem in their quest back to relevancy stemmed from an inability or unwillingness to completely bottom out. In those four years, Detroit finished no lower than 12th in the standings, decreasing the value of their pick and making it difficult to rebuild through the draft, forcing its energy upon the free-agent market instead.
Constructing a playoff-caliber roster through free agency is a worthy strategy, but what the Pistons were doing around Smith remains a mystery all these years later.
Drafted seventh overall in 2010, Monroe was a traditional low-post presence coming off a productive year of 16.0 points, 9.6 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game. Drummond was limited in his first season after being taken ninth in 2012, but he’d shown the potential that eventually helped him become one of the best rebounders in the game.
Smith had occupied the small forward position for the first three seasons of his career in Atlanta. His plus/minus per 100 possessions was never higher than minus-4.0.
Upon sliding down a position — along with a one-year adjustment period — Smith was able to exploit the slower feet of traditional fours in ways he couldn’t do as a three. In his final five years with the Hawks, his average plus/minus per 100 possessions was a plus-4.0.
A 28.1 percent outside shooter in Atlanta, Smith had taken what was then a career-high 2.6 3-point attempts per game in his final Hawks season, drilling just 30.3 percent of them. 1,163 players have attempted at least 200 3-pointers in a single season since 2009-10. Smith’s 2012-13 campaign ranks 1,134.
This is the guy the Detroit Pistons were now positioning to let fly from beyond the arc with little room to operate in the areas he does best.
Teams weren’t as invested in the 3-point shot seven years ago as they are today, but the basic principles and values of the shot had begun to see the light.
The New York Knicks had just set the record for most 3-pointers in a season with 891. The Miami Heat emerged as NBA champions thanks in part to the lineups that stretched defenses with Chris Bosh at the center position.
Detroit could’ve mitigated the potential clunkiness by bringing one of either Monroe or Drummond off the bench. Neither did in the 163 combined games they played nor did Smith in his 76 appearances.
The inaugural run of this experiment went about as well — or poorly — as one could have expected. Smith’s counting numbers hovered around their previous mark, but his efficiency in every area took a hit.
His average field goal distance increased more than one foot and his field goal percentage dipped to a then career-low 41.9 percent.
Smith shot far less in the restricted area, attempting a career-high 3.4 3-pointers per game, converting on just 26.4 percent of them. The minus-1.4 offensive win shares he produced remains the worst mark of his career.
Detroit finished with an identical 29-53 record and the same 11th-place finish yet decided to run back the same awkward trio, albeit with a light attempt to bring Monroe off the bench.
The adjustment didn’t take as the Detroit Pistons seemed to get worse. They’d gone 13-15 through the first 28 games of the previous season. In 2013-14, they were just 5-23 through December 21.
It was at this point where the Pistons decided they’d be better off paying Smith to play anywhere else. They waived and stretched out the remainder of his contract on Dec. 22, a large sum they contributed $5.3 million to this year.
Following the move, Detroit rattled off seven consecutive victories. Despite ultimately finishing the season 12th in the east at 32-20, the Pistons were an even .500 in the remaining 54 games and would end a six-year playoff drought the following season.
Smith would go on to sign with the Houston Rockets less than a week later and prove to be a valuable contributor in their first Western Conference Finals appearance since 1997.
Hindsight opens our eyes to a lot of basketball decisions that, in retrospect, shouldn’t have been made.
The pairing of Smith and the Detroit Pistons, however, needs no revisionist history, not even with the growth of smaller and 3-point heavy lineups. It was a questionable signing then, and the direction both parties went in upon separating is a shining example of a relationship that should’ve never manifested.