Just How Good Have the Detroit Pistons Been Without Josh Smith?
On December 22nd, the Detroit Pistons' head coach and president of basketball operations, Stan Van Gundy, decided he had had enough of Josh Smith's inefficient brand of basketball and waived the enigmatic forward with two years and $26 million left on his contract. Those kind of moves -- the ones where teams choose to pay players sums as large as $26 million to go away rather than to play basketball as both sides originally agreed upon -- don't exactly happen every day. It was shocking, to say the least.
Since then, Smith has joined on with buddy Dwight Howard and James Harden in Houston and the Rockets have gone through a pretty rough adjustment period. They've dropped four of seven since the move, after starting the season 20-7.
But the big story is not about how Josh Smith's new team is losing more, it's how much his old team is winning. More specifically, how they're winning everything.
The Detroit Pistons -- a team that started the year 5-23 and played like they fully belonged with the dregs of the NBA -- have gone a perfect 6-0 since parting ways with Smith. Forget about an adjustment period, it's been nothing but "Smoove(-less)" sailing for the Pistons since they opened the door and booted their formerly highest-paid player out. Sure, we kind of saw it coming (and recommended it...twice), but their dominant play without him has been no less impressive.
After all, it's not like we're talking about a weak, dismissible 6-0. Sure, there were wins against the depleted Pacers, rebuilding Magic, and hapless Knicks in there. But there were also wins against the better-than-we-expected Kings, the contending Cavaliers, and the defending-champion Spurs in the mix as well. And they haven't all been squeak-by affairs like last night's win in San Antonio by way of a Brandon Jennings buzzer beater either. No, the Pistons have won their last six games (four of which were on the road) by an average point differential of 15.3. In fact, last night's 105-104 victory over the defending champs was the only single-digit win in the bunch.
To say they've been a completely different team since the change would be putting it lightly. Here's how the Pistons have performed in a few important categories over the last six contests versus their first 28, complete with NBA rank:
|Detroit Pistons||Last 6 Games||Before J.Smith Trade|
The best teams in the league generally rise to the top in net rating, which is a calculation of how many more (or fewer) points a team scores per 100 possessions than they allow. It might come in an incredibly small sample size, but it's been a long time since the Detroit Pistons sniffed anywhere near the top of these lists and their sudden turnaround should be properly appreciated.
The shooting differential is particularly striking. A regression is almost certainly coming, but going from being the worst team in the league in effective field goal percentage (weighted twos and threes) to the second best during a nearly-two-week period stands out. Especially when the player you just offloaded was shooting a horrendous 40.3% effective field goal percentage on 14.0 field goal attempts (1.3 of which were triples) per game. Smith's shooting split of 39.1% from the field, 24.3% from long range, and 46.8% from the free throw line was downright ugly.
Simply by removing Smith from the starting lineup and replacing him with Greg Monroe, the Pistons went from having one of the most ineffective starting fives in the Association to one of the absolute best over the last couple weeks.
|B.Jennings, K.Caldwell-Pope, K.Singler, J.Smith, A.Drummond (pre-waiving)||185||96.4||107.0||-10.6||45.4%||49.5%|
|B.Jennings, K.Caldwell-Pope, K.Singler, G.Monroe, A.Drummond (post-waiving)||84||108.8||87.1||21.7||53.3%||55.7%|
It's common to overstate simple correlation and treat it like there's a cause and effect relationship, but boy does it ever look like replacing Josh Smith with Greg Monroe in the starting lineup is the exact reason for Detroit's success. Van Gundy has experimented with a lot of lineups this season, but the one you see above of Jennings, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Kyle Singler, Smith, and Andre Drummond was his most used iteration with 185 minutes played together. In only six games since the move, SVG's new favorite lineup with Greg Monroe in place of Smith has already played 45.4% as much time on the floor as the old one, and has been approximately a billion times better, according to our algorithms (ok, not really, I eyeballed that).
So, can the Pistons sustain this recent string of success? Brandon Jennings has averaged 20.2 points, 2.7 rebounds, and 5.8 assists over that stretch, while shooting 50.5% from the floor, 45.0% from deep, and 87.5% from the charity stripe. Considering his career split in those categories is 39.1%/35.1%/80.2%, chances are he's due for a regression. Jodie Meeks has been pretty excellent in his 12 games since returning from injury, but is his 53.6%/58.6%/91.7% split from the last six sustainable? Andre Drummond is a blossoming beast, but aren't his recent averages of 15.8 points, 16.0 rebounds, 1.8 steals, and 2.2 blocks per game with 65.6% shooting a little over his head too?
Basically, everything has broken right for the Pistons over this stretch of games. Some things will eventually break bad again (let's not forget that they're still an 11-23 team and 13th in the lowly Eastern Conference), but these last few games are undeniably a step in the right direction. For a team that we predicted would end this season only one game out of the playoffs, the current 3.5-game gap between them and the 8th-place Miami Heat is starting to look wholly surmountable. We can't throw a parade in downtown Detroit after six games, of course, but with SVG at the helm and Josh Smith's inefficiencies now someone else's problem, perhaps we can start imagining playoff basketball in Detroit again for the first time in six years.
We'll get to see just how real these Pistons are when they head to Dallas tonight to face the Mavericks, our second-ranked team and one that is currently tied with Detroit at six for the league's longest active winning streak. Two weeks ago, a Mavericks victory would've been a foregone conclusion. Now, Detroit is clearly building something. And they have our attention.