In a hoops era that celebrates diverse arrays of talent and positional versatility, Josh Smith should be an MVP candidate, or at the very least a perennial All-Star. A freakish blend of size, strength and athleticism, he's a combine scout's dream.
The problem is he's 27 years old and has nary an All-Star selection nor a compelling MVP case on his nine-year NBA resume.
The Detroit Pistons, desperate in their attempt to hasten their rebuilding project, invested $54 million in the mercurial forward this summer. It wasn't quite the max money Smith had envisioned, but it was enough to display Detroit's willingness to absorb the good, the bad and even the ugly that comes from adding a player like Smoove.
A high-risk, high-reward talent to the extreme, he's the kind of multifaceted addition capable of fracturing even the most cohesive front office. His good is so good, but the bad and the ugly are non-negotiable parts of the transaction.
If the Pistons haven't met the three faces of Smith yet, now is as good a time as any for the introductions.
When he's focused and engaged, Smith fills a stat sheet as well as any player in the league.
A leading figure in the point-forward revolution, Smith's an offensive threat racing in the open court, working from the top of the key or posted on the low block. He can break down bigger defenders off the dribble or punish smaller ones with his back to the basket. And he never loses sight of his teammates in case teams throw double-teams his way.
Passing is an integral part of his skill set, which says a lot since he was a top-25 scorer last season (17.5 points per game).
Perhaps his most potent offensive weapon—and surely the most recognizable one—is his ability to add vertical spacing to any transition attack. If defenders lose track him for an instant, he's already en route to another dunk-contest finish.
He often saves his best performances for the defensive end, though.
There his skills as a weak-side helper are nearly unparalleled in this league. His timing, both as a ball hawk and a shot-eraser, and his understanding of spacing are impeccable.
Smith was the only non-center to crack the league's top 10 in blocks last season. He finished ninth with 1.79 per game. Of those 10 players, only Tim Duncan (1.70) and Brook Lopez (2.05) averaged fewer fouls than Smith (2.30), a notable number as he logged the third-most minutes of the group (35.3 a night).
He's already an upper-echelon talent as the league's 24th-best scorer, but he separates himself from even that group as more statistical categories enter the equation. Only two players ahead of him on the scoring charts averaged better than Smith's 8.4 rebounds per game: Al Jefferson, 9.2, and David Lee, 11.2. No one on the list other than Smith managed at least 1.0 steals and 1.5 blocks last season.
True two-way talents are few and far between. Most clubs are forced to settle for specialists.
The Pistons just landed one of those coveted players in Smith. But again, there are more layers of J-Smoove to digest.
Smith's still learning that just because he can shoot from anywhere, that doesn't mean he should.
If pictures truly speak a thousand words, then his shot chart from last season is a red-and-yellow-tinted ode to awful shot selection.
Fans often point to his woeful rates from beyond the arc, but the more analytically inclined crowd takes far greater exception to those inefficient long twos.
Part of the problem is his avoidance of putting sweat equity in every possession. Like a hurler getting clobbered for tipping his pitches, Smith often keys defenders to his team's play; he'll mentally check out of a possession when his number isn't called.
When he stops moving without the ball, he has a tendency to drift out to the perimeter, where his lack of effective dribble moves becomes glaring. If he doesn't jack an ill-advised three off the catch, he'll work to create just enough space to hoist one of those groan-inducing jumpers steps inside the arc.
Maybe his lack of aggression stems from an overall lack of confidence in his free throws. Never a particularly deft shooter at the charity stripe (career 65.4 percent), Smith has been borderline atrocious on these should-be freebies of late.
While he shines as a help defender, he's far from being an elite-level defensive presence.
Just 225 pounds, he gives up valuable real estate in one-on-one matchups near the basket. When pulled out to the perimeter, he doesn't have the necessary lateral quickness to keep pace with the track stars filling today's wings. Sometimes he can recover in time for chase-down blocks; other times he can't.
There are ways that new coach Maurice Cheeks could work to mask some of these weaknesses, but Smith's ugly side presents a whole new set of problems that only the player can solve.
The youthful Pistons needed a quiet, lead-by-example type to teach them how to play winning basketball. What they ended up with was a loud, boisterous player who's never known sustained success and wears his heart on his sleeve for better and, far more often, for worse.
Fans don't need a stat sheet to know what kind of night Smith is having. One look at his open-book facial expressions tells the whole story.
In April 2007, a frustrated Smith tore into then-Hawks coach Mike Woodson in the late stages of a 109-104 loss to the Philadelphia 76ers. For his sideline tirade, the Hawks handed him a two-game suspension.
Those demonstrative displays have caught the attention of the officials, too.
Smith has been assessed a technical foul at least once every nine games in four of the last five seasons, as seen in the breakdown below.
Even the league office has been forced to step in and discipline the mercurial forward. He was suspended for two games in December 2005 after elbowing then-Phoenix Suns guard Raja Bell early in the third quarter of Atlanta's 112-94 loss.
And his problems only escalate away from the bright lights of game night.
In 2011, Sports Illustrated's Sam Amick opined that Smith could play a big factor in then-Hawks coach Larry Drew's future: "Drew has been unable to stop the veteran from being a season-long disruption and undermining his position with his other players in the process."
Smith became such a distraction during a practice last season that Drew threw him out of the session. The Hawks then suspended him for one game for what they called "conduct detrimental to the team," via Chris Vivlamore of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Cheeks has a strong background in developing young talent, but every coach needs a strong locker-room presence to help validate his message.
Smith isn't that type of player. Never has been, never will be.
Basketball Bargain or Ill-fated Investment?
The Pistons saved some face by refusing to meet Smith's max-contract demands, but $54 million for four years is not a discounted rate.
To be fair, Detroit doesn't have the recent successes needed to convince free agents to sign for cheap. In that sense, Smith's on-paper resume falls somewhere in the respectable range of the salary that the Pistons put up.
But free-agent grades aren't made on stat sheets alone. Things like fit, opportunity, attitude and chemistry all factor into the final assessment.
Here's where Smith's new relationship with the Pistons falls short. He doesn't have the perimeter game to complement the post play of Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond, nor the refined interior skills to push one of those budding bigs to the second unit.
He'll help win a handful of games with his on-court showings, but he'll give away just as many with bad decisions and a lackadaisical effort. Had Smith made his Motown move just one season prior, he would've had only the eighth-best win-shares-per-48-minutes average on the team.
Throw in the cost of his negative locker-room presence, and this move carries more than just its $54 million price tag.
Smith's bad or ugly sides could be outpacing his good on their own, but when all three sides come together, they become a jumbled mess of wasted raw ability.
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