Finding Josh Smith

Josh Smith

Josh Smith lasted just over a year in a Detroit uniform, blemished as one of the most despised rotation players in the NBA over that span. Along with a spot back on his couch, Smith has earned these marks by failing the eye test for 35 minutes per game. This goes beyond the spacing of Detroit’s weird three-big-man rotation, or an unnecessary cog as a non-shooter in Stan Van Gundy’s new system, or even the rumor that Greg Monroe, competing for Smith’s minutes, reportedly wanted the now-maligned player traded over the offseason.

Smith’s release from Detroit was newsworthy because of his massive contract, not because the above issues surprised Detroit’s fan base upon his arrival or his hampering one of the worst teams in the league. Detroit (5–23) has had one of the easier schedules thus far, blowing winnable opportunities against Utah, Phoenix, and most notably, Oklahoma City, all at home. Starting the immortal, ungodly Brandon Jennings, losing $18 million shooter Jodie Meeks to injury, and installing Van Gundy’s shooter-friendly system (designed to most help Meeks) caused its own share of problems in Motor City. Smith may not be the center of Detroit’s issues, but this three-pointer didn’t exactly help things:

Smith, a career 27.8 percent three-point shooter, reserved the audacity to take 3.4 threes per game last season … and his first instinct was to take a three-pointer on that play. It’s inexcusable. Even worse, Smith shot 26.4 percent clip, 3.2 percent below his already putrid career average. A renowned gunner, Smith is, criticized to no end about his shooting (in)ability, doubling-down on his fluke jumper. It feels like basketball torture.

It’s neither market inefficiency nor a situation of bad coaching: if the ball is in someone’s hands, the option to shoot a three in a clutch situation is Smith’s and Smith’s alone. The fact that Smith’s never been a good three-point shooter only adds to the gravitas of the situation: the flaw’s egregious nature has sideswiped Smith’s overall regression as a contributor on offense. This is where the vaunted eye test would ideally come in: for instance, what do you think Smith should be doing here?

I’ll give you a minute.

(HINT: If you see Smith on the top-right of the screen looking like he just hit a deer, you’re in the right direction.)

Time’s up. If you answered, “That’s cramped spacing, Smith should be either on the baseline or on the other wing,” you’re correct. You’ve passed “Eye Test, Josh Smith Edition.”

From this disaster, it’s easy to see how Smith could be beneficial to Houston, his destination as of yesterday, according to Yahoo Sports’ Adrian Wojnarowski. Houston could play Smith besides Terrence Jones in certain spots if Smith commits to interior defense again, with Smith covering the opposing team’s tallest guy. From there, virtually any team in the NBA will have better spacing than this cluster of garden gnomes … so unless Smith truly cannot put the ball in the hole anymore (unlikely), his time on the floor will simply look more fun than this mess.

There’s also arguable evidence that Van Gundy may have been the problem: in 2012–13 (Smith’s last year in Atlanta), Smith made 77 percent of his shots at the rim, on par with LeBron James’ most efficient at-rim percentages of his Miami years. Van Gundy’s history as an over-absorbed, hands-on coach likely eliminated any chances that Smith drove to the rim this year, explaining the percentage drop.

The case for Smith, still 29 years old, arrives from these possibilities, even as he’s underwent a three-year long regressing period since the 2011–12 lockout-shortened season, when he posted 18.8 points and 9.6 rebounds every night and led the league with 4.9 defensive win shares. Other than his on-court shenanigans, he has almost no serious injury record playing in 781 of a possible 886 games, doesn’t scream “locker room lawyer” like Lance Stephenson, Stephen Jackson, or Andre Miller, and has been surrounded by a traveling circus of teammates since his last year in Atlanta.

If anything, more observers should be noticing that he’s statistically reemerged as a decent, low-risk passer, most likely developing the skill over the years as the game’s slowed down to him. Smith has averaged 7.6 assists per 100 possessions on the year, the highest of his career. Plenty of experts have noted how Smith’s situation screams “great prospect, bad team,” much like Ellis or Boris Diaw.

It’s up to Smith to find one valuable trait—for Diaw, it was basketball IQ, for Ellis in Dallas, it was mid-range scoring—that will save him in the NBA. If not? Houston GM Daryl Morey, forever ruthless and asset-savvy, won’t hesitate to release him. Hopefully, Smith understands that message as he sets his foot in the door.

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