Yashinsky: Piston Josh Smith, A 10-Year Veteran Who Plays Like a Rookie

Joe Dumars added several fresh faces to the squad this offseason.  And without making sweeping statements or getting too panicked/excited at such an early juncture, 23 games does feel like enough time to begin forming fair opinions of the newest Pistons.  Today we focus on the polarizing Josh Smith.

Josh Smith

I want to be positive.  I want to see the glass as half full here.  Smith was the splashiest addition over the summer, and was counted on to lead his young Piston brethren back to the playoffs.  So far, the results have been blah, to put it lightly.

There were a couple of glaring issues that plagued Smith throughout his nine years in Atlanta.  One was attitude and the other was shot selection.  Smith always seemed to be butting heads with coach Mike Woodson, and even in the early stages of this campaign, he has already had some miscommunication with Maurice Cheeks.

Deadline Detroit reader and lifetime Pistons’ fan Marc Stankus attended Sunday’s blowout loss to the revenge-seeking Miami Heat.  He noticed that throughout the opening quarter, as the Pistons dug themselves a hole they would never climb out of, Smith was sulking.  Stankus reported, “He just looked depressed...arms out like “why didn’t I get the ball?” for the first five minutes...body language was pathetic.”  A quarter of a season into a four-year deal, those aren’t really the type of observations you want to be reading.

Lack of Awareness

But it’s really the shot selection that stands out above all else.  Simply put, Smith has never understood the meaning of a “quality shot,” and really, that’s what the game of basketball is about.  Which team gets easy buckets, which team consistently gets clean looks, which team plays to their strengths; this is the best determinant of success.  

The rap on Josh is that he has always loved shooting the 3-ball even though his percentages are perennially awful.  Not only is this year not an exception, he’s bombing away more than ever before.  Through just 23 games, he’s fired 103 missiles from downtown.  His career high in that department was last year with 201 tries, so he’s already more than halfway there.  He’s knocking in just 27% of these shots.  It doesn’t take a calculus professor to figure out Smith should be shooting much less from three point land, not more.  

The larger issue at play here is how much Josh Smith truly cares about winning.  There was a sequence in the Minnesota game on Tuesday night that illustrated a subtle, yet meaningful, difference between Smith and the T’Wolves all-world forward Kevin Love.  

With the Pistons working for a shot, the ball ultimately found its way to Smith on the left elbow.  Upon receiving the ball, he was momentarily open for the 3.  But there was a defender closing fast, making the already low-percentage shot an even dicier proposition. 

Kyle Singler, the Pistons’ best shooter, stood in the corner to Smith’s left, ready for the final swing pass.  This would have made for an even better look for a much better shooter.  For the Pistons, Smith passing and Singler shooting was the best option for the possession.  But sometimes Josh Smith’s main concern is Josh Smith.  Naturally, he cocked the ball over his head, ignored the waiting hands of Singler, and launched the ball knuckling toward the goal.  It crashed off the rim, the Wolves rebounded, and that was that.

Later in the game, a similar sequence took place on the other end.  Kevin Love had the ball on the perimeter.  A Piston ran out to him, so he faked and dribbled to the side.  He could have taken the 3 at that point.  After all, he is one of the game’s most dangerous long-range shooters.  Instead, he dished off to Ricky Rubio, who was all alone on the right wing.  The Spanish point guard caught the ball in rhythm and drained the triple.  Nobody would have criticized Love for taking the shot -- he’s earned that offensive freedom.  But the natural play was to find the open man, and he did just that.

Win . . . Lose . . . Does it Matter?

It’s not fair to suggest that Josh Smith doesn’t care at all about winning.  But it is appropriate to question whether it is the most important thing to him.  If it were, wouldn’t he ramp down on the 3s?  Attack the basket more frequently?  Stop shooting free throws from two feet beyond the stripe?

That last one is particularly puzzling.  At one point in Smith’s career, he was a semi-respectable +70% free throw shooter.  For the last two years, it’s been all he can do to keep his head above 50.  Oddly enough, a large part of these struggles might be due to where he’s lining up. 

You’d think that with a free throw, everyone would release from the same exact spot on the floor.  It’s like solving that final puzzle on Wheel of Fortune; Pat Sajak literally tells you exactly where to stand.  However, Smith treats that line like it’s a suggestion, not an order.  He sets himself back a good 2-3 steps, which anyone with even a rudimentary understanding of physics would tell you makes the whole operation more challenging.  

Go watch a loop of swishes by Calvin Murphy, Mark Price, Chris Mullin; then tell me if you saw any of them lining up anywhere but right on the edge of that stripe.  Joe Dumars, an excellent free thrower in his day, did more than just stand on the line.  He shot the ball while practically leaning forward, his momentum carrying him forward into the paint after the release.  The closer you are to the target, the better the chance for success.  Perhaps Joe D could share this pearl of wisdom with his new free agent bricklayer.

Blaha and Kelser Get Overly Excited

Not all is lost with Smith, however.  The guy has managed to carve out a ten-year run in the NBA, which you cannot do without offering some type of value.  He is still a dynamic athlete, can be dangerous in transition, and is capable of being a game-changing defensive presence.  His offensive arsenal isn’t half-bad either when he is remotely rational about it.  Take last night, for example.

The Pistons were locked in a tight battle in New Orleans with just over a minute remaining.  Down four, Smith worked his way across the lane and tossed in a running hook to slice the deficit in half.  George Blaha shouted gleefully, “Smith...so dangerous inside!”  The next possession was almost a carbon copy of the previous trip.  Another attempt at penetration and a difficult half-hook that dropped to even things at 96.  This time it was Greg Kelser singing his praises.  “Both of those shots were taken going into the paintGood decisions, Josh.”  

You don’t get much in the way of criticism during the telecast from Blaha or Kelser, which makes that last remark noteworthy.  It was Kelser’s way of acknowledging, without saying so specifically, that Smith’s shot selection is generally putrid.  Analysts don’t usually need to declare that a “good decision” was made when a 6-foot-9 forward journeys toward the paint for a basket.  But with a player like Josh Smith (or his former self, Rasheed Wallace), this aggressive tactic is met with confetti and party hats.

The Pistons ultimately fell short in overtime.  The final dagger occurred with ten seconds left, Pelicans leading by three.  Tyreke Evans missed a free throw, meaning the Pistons would now have one final chance to tie.  But here comes a whistle.  Lane violation on our man of the hour, Josh Smith.  For some inexplicable reason, as Evans was about to shoot (ball still firmly in his hands), Smith darted in from the top of the key, flying in to snag the rebound.  It was a close, but correct call.  

As it was, Greg Monroe would have handled the carom easily if not for the antics of J-Smoove.  Evans canned the subsequent re-do and it was curtains for the Stones.  (Note that on this free throw, Smith made what looked like the exact same dash to the hoop, basically challenging the refs to nail him again.  It went unnoticed because he made the free throw, but I found it telling.)

As stated at the outset, you don’t want to give up on a new player without a fair shake.  Smith’s only been here for a couple of months, barely long enough to sip a Faygo Rock & Rye or learn the intricacies of the Michigan Left.  But this is not some rookie or foreign import we’re dealing with, either.  

Smith has been around for a long time, and at a certain point, you come to the realization that despite your fiercest desires, it is simply impossible to teach an old dog new tricks.  The errant threes, the extra-long free throws, the sketchy body language, the backbreaking lane violation for no reason whatsoever; that’s who Josh Smith is.  It’s what he’s always been.  And whether you like it or not, he’s probably not changing anytime soon. 

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