Detroit’s frontcourt trio experiment of Andre Drummond, Greg Monroe, and Josh Smith looks destined to come to an end this summer, as Monroe is a restricted free agent and Smith is in trade rumors galore. It was a fun idea in principle, but everyone - including the Pistons’ new coach, Stan Van Gundy - knows that the three bigs can’t play at the same time and still expect to space the floor effectively.
With the seemingly inevitability of a change in mind, what exactly should the Pistons do with their frontcourt? Should they stay the course? Can they survive if they just let Monroe walk? Should they trade Smith? Could one of the three bigs come off the bench? If so, who should it be?
Let’s consider the angles.
Can Josh Smith Continue to Play Small Forward?
When Smith signed a four-year, $54-million contract with the Detroit Pistons last summer, reactions ranged from confused to cautiously optimistic. The Pistons already had two very promising big men in Monroe and Drummond - only 23 and 19 years of age at the time, respectively - that were entrenched in the starting power forward and center spots. The idea, for better or worse, was that Smith had played a fair bit of small forward in Atlanta and could do so again in Detroit.
J-Smoove had indeed played the majority of his time at small forward for the first three years of his career as a Hawk, but had transitioned to playing power forward almost exclusively for the final six. When all was said and done by the end of his nine years in Atlanta, he had played roughly 33% of his time at small forward and about 63% at power forward (according to basketball-reference.com’s position estimates).
The shift in his first year as a Piston was rather stark, as he was on the floor as a small forward 56% of the time, compared to 43% played at the power forward position. The change was necessary, of course, to strike the balance of playing the team’s top talent and those with the biggest contracts. Even so, by almost every account, the three-headed monster of Drummond, Monroe, and Smith was not a successful experiment.
|Off Rtg||Def Rtg||Net Rtg||Reb %||TO Ratio||eFG%
|Smith, Monroe, Drummond||102.5||110.5||-8.0||53.2%||16.0||48.8%|
The trio was the fourth most frequently occurring three-man lineup for the Pistons this season, playing 1360 minutes together. Of all the three-man combinations that played over 400 minutes for the Pistons this season, they had the worst raw plus-minus (-185), the second worst net rating (8.0 more points allowed per 100 possessions than scored when on the floor together), and the worst turnover ratio (16.0 turnovers per 100 possessions).
One would think that the added size would pay off in the defensive department, but it clearly didn’t. As for the areas of rebounding and shooting efficiency - other places where some kind of improvement would be expected - the difference between what the team was able to do with the trio on the floor and with other more traditional combinations was marginal.
In other words, the experiment didn’t work.
Should They Bench One?
Of the 13 five-man lineups that the Pistons trotted out last season for a minimum of 50 total minutes, five had a positive plus-minus. What did the top four of those lineups have in common? They were all missing at least one of Drummond, Monroe, or Smith.
|5-Man Lineup||MIN||+/-||Net Rtg||eFG%
|Jennings, Stuckey, Singler, Smith, Drummond||129||+22||+7.4||55.0%|
|Jennings, Caldwell-Pope, Singler, Smith, Monroe||83||+39||+22.8||58.8%|
|Jennings, Stuckey, Caldwell-Pope, Smith, Monroe||65||+21||+14.1||59.0%|
|Jennings, Caldwell-Pope, Singler, Monroe, Drummond||54||+21||+15.2||55.8%|
The concept of bringing one of the three bigs off the bench works in theory - as seen in the small sample sizes above - but probably wouldn’t work in practice.
There is a big premium on effective bigs in this league and someone is bound to put in a big offer for Monroe. If the Pistons are forced to match something close to the max (roughly four years, $60 million), there’s no way they could justify bringing one of their two highest paid players (presumably Smith and Monroe) off the bench, nor stunting the growth of a 20-year-old Drummond by reducing his minutes.
Let’s face it, one of them has got to go.
If They Get Rid of One, Who Should it Be?
Be careful; after a quick glance at each of their individual stat lines from last season, the answer might hit you really hard upside the head.
Smith led the trio in scoring, but did so far less efficiently. His 41.9% from the field was the worst mark of his entire career. That can likely be chalked up to the fact that he took a career high 21.5% of his field goal attempts from long range (3.4 per game), despite only hitting them at a putrid 26.4% rate (the worst percentage of anyone who took over 200 attempts from long range this past season).
This was all likely due to the fact that he was forced to play a lot more time at small forward and further proof that he really shouldn’t have.
Smith led his entire team in shots per contest at 16.0 and usage rate at 24.5%. Combine those things with the inefficient shooting percentages and the high turnovers (2.6 per contest) and it’s not hard to figure out what drove his all-encompassing advanced stats right off a cliff and into oblivion. As shown above, Smith came nowhere close to Drummond or Monroe in player efficiency rating (PER), win shares (WS), or our own nERD metric.
In fact, Smith had the worst nERD on his team and the second worst in the entire league (sorry Tony Wroten, you lose). If you're not familiar, our metric is meant to estimate the number of wins a player would contribute to a league-average team if he were a starter. Give the Pistons those 10 losses that Smith was responsible for back and they would’ve been a playoff team in the lowly East. Just sayin’.
To recap, playing all three of Drummond, Monroe, and Smith together didn’t work, it wouldn’t make sense to bench either one of them (given their contracts/ages), and Smith is by far the biggest detriment to his team out of the three.
Simply put, the best option for the Pistons is to trade Josh Smith.
His contract looks awful now though, and finding a trade partner could prove to be difficult. They almost had something late last week, as the Sacramento Kings were reportedly interested in J-Smoove’s services and the Pistons were serendipitously kicking the tires on Kings restricted free agent Isaiah Thomas. A sign-and-trade of Thomas for Smith would have made a boatload of sense (at least for the Pistons), but now it seems as though Detroit has perplexingly quashed the deal.
Perhaps they should reconsider.
Monroe is only 24 and Drummond is still 20 frickin’ years old. Both players have All-Star upside and now will have the benefit of working with a coach who has a history of nurturing young big men to success in Stan Van Gundy.
If the Pistons are truly interested in putting this failed experiment of three bigs behind them and in making the best move for their rebuilding effort, they'll have to find a way to move on from Josh Smith.