Breaking Down How Josh Smith Must Change His Game to Thrive with Detroit Pistons

Adam Fromal@fromal09National NBA Featured ColumnistSeptember 18, 2013

ATLANTA, GA - APRIL 29:  Josh Smith #5 of the Atlanta Hawks reacts to the fans in the final minutes of their 102-91 win over the Indiana Pacers during Game Four of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals of the 2013 NBA Playoffs at Philips Arena on April 29, 2013 in Atlanta, Georgia.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The version of Josh Smith that played for the Atlanta Hawks isn't going to cut it in the Motor City.

If the forward doesn't change his game, he's not going to thrive with the Detroit Pistons. Jacking up bricks from the perimeter and running around with reckless abandon on defense won't work, among other things.

Smith has the potential to change his game and achieve maximum success in his new threads. And alongside Andre Drummond, Greg Monroe and Brandon Jennings, Smoove 2.0 would be a deadly enough player that he could easily lead the team into the postseason picture.

The Eastern Conference is getting tougher, and there's going to be a lot of competition for the final seeds, but the Pistons will be right in the thick of things if Smith successfully changes his game.

Three primary shifts must occur.  

Establish Himself in the Post More

During his final season with the Atlanta Hawks, Smith was actually a competent post player. You'd never know it since he displayed that unfortunate tendency to pull up for a deep two-pointer with such high frequency. 

More on that shooting later, but Smoove has to begin establishing himself in the post more often. 

Monroe is a solid post player, and Drummond has shown the tools to thrive with his back to the basket, but the onus is on the newly acquired forward to take this team to the next level in the half-court sets. 

According to Synergy Sports (subscription required), Smith put up 0.74 points per possession in post-up situations, the No. 121 mark in the NBA. That's by no means elite, but the athletic forward has shown tools that point toward potential greatness in the post. 

Take this play against the Indiana Pacers as an example. 

Paul George is guarding Smith in this situation, and it's not like he's a shabby defender or anything. He's actually pretty darn elite. 

With just a few back-down dribbles, Smith has already established better position. He's far closer to the basket and the options have just increased dramatically. 

From this spot, he can pass to a cutter, spin out for a jumper or drive to the basket. 

Or he can spin to the hoop. 

Even though Smith doesn't go into whirling-dervish mode as often as he should, he still possesses one of the tightest spins in basketball. At least when you consider how big his frame is. 

In less than one second, Smith has left George in the dust, giving himself an open lane to the hoop.

And from here, the forward is a deft finisher.  Although he doesn't have much touch from the outside, Smith thrives putting the ball in the hoop from close range. According to Basketball-Reference, he made 77.1 percent of his looks at the rim in 2012-13, and you should expect a similar percentage in 2013-14. 

Between his strength, quickness and finishing, Smoove can thrive with his back to the basket. Now it's time for him to prove it, as the Pistons could most assuredly use a player with that elite set of skills and physical gifts. 

Either Start Hitting Shots or Stop Taking Them

This is the big one. 

Smith has established quite a reputation as a shot-jacker. He's a punisher of rims (in both a good and bad way thanks to his dunking and bricks), and there's really no denying that. 

During his final season with the Atlanta Hawks, the Oak Hill product was just a putrid shooter from all mid-range areas. He hit 24 percent of his shots from 10 to 15 feet, 33 percent of the looks from 16 to 23 feet and 30.3 percent of the attempts from beyond the three-point arc. 

To put that in perspective, let me turn to my pure shooting metric. You can read a full description of the derivation here

Of the 172 qualified players, Smith ranked second-to-last. Only Monta Ellis had a worse score than his minus-56.68. 

Pure shooting can be broken down into value added in each range. Take a look at Smith's ranks among the 172 eligible players in each zone. 

That's a brutal combination, and it's a pretty clear indication that one of two things needs to happen: Either Smith must start hitting his looks, or he has to pass them up. 

According to the Detroit Free Press' Perry A Farrell, Detroit is looking into the former option. Smith has gone on the record as saying that he's working on his mid-range and long-range shooting, and Rasheed Wallace, now a member of the coaching staff, has stated that he's working on the forward's shot from 15 to 18 feet.  

A few members of B/R's NBA team (myself, Zach Buckley and Ethan Norof) briefly discussed this decision, and it was met with quite a bit of skepticism. Phrases like "analytics be damned" and "can you believe they're encouraging him" were used. So was a GIF of someone's mind blowing. 

But upon further consideration, it's actually the best idea. 

Detroit needs someone to provide floor spacing, and Smith may well be the best option. Jennings is another one, but the spacing must come from the frontcourt as well. Asking either Monroe or Drummond to step out to the perimeter would be foolish. 

Smith is simply the only frontcourt member who has this ability. 

The Pistons have to use it, but they also have to understand when to pull the plug on the experiment. If Smoove doesn't start hitting with consistency, Detroit will doom itself by continuing to give him a green light. 

Watching his field-goal percentage at the beginning of the year is of paramount importance. 

Focus More on Perimeter Defense

Smith gets a lot of credit for his defensive prowess, and it's for good reason. His versatility is legendary, as he can guard multiple positions, play on the interior or perimeter and thrive as either an individual or help defender. 

With the Pistons, it's most important that he start focusing on his perimeter defense. He doesn't have to rely on flying around the court like he did with the Hawks. Instead, he can stick to his man like glue, letting Drummond be the one who cleans up behind everyone else. 

So, was Smith better as an individual or team defender last year? 

It's a tough question to answer, but we do have some stats than can help us arrive at a conclusion. 

According to Synergy, the forward allowed 0.81 points per possession, the No. 72 mark in the NBA. That's a pretty elite number for a player who often assumed the toughest assignment and was counted on to play help defense at the drop of a hat. 

His best trait was his isolation defense, checking in at 32nd in the Association by giving up only 0.65 points per possession. Smith's work in the post wasn't much worse, and his toughest areas were guarding spot-up shooters and pick-and-roll ball-handlers, two situations that often involve sagging off an assignment to help out teammates. 

Now, if we turn to Basketball-Reference, we don't get the prettiest image. 

When Smoove was on the court, the Hawks allowed 104.5 points per 100 possessions. When he sat, that number jumped to 105. It still shows that Atlanta was a better defensive team when he played, but his team defense could use a bit of work, especially since he played next to the Hawks' better defenders more often than not. 

As impressive as plays like that one are, that can't be his primary focus on the Pistons. Drummond has that role covered, and the big man is only going to continue improving as a rim-protector and overall defensive monster. 

Smith's mentality has to shift. He can't think of himself as the garbage man, the one who picks up everyone else's trash. He has to be the man who prevents that trash from existing in the first place. 

If he can do that, the Pistons will morph into a defensive monster. 

Detroit has a long way to go in its quest to become a playoff team. The pieces are there, but it's all about making sure that they fit together in proper fashion. A jumbled up puzzle isn't the same as a masterpiece that you spent hours, days and even weeks constructing. 

As the new guy in town, as well as the most established top-tier talent, Smith is the man who has to make it all happen. 


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