The Pistons' Josh Smith is averaging 15.8 points and 6.5 rebounds. (Clarence Tabb Jr. / Detroit News)
Cleveland — When a player has a decade or more in the league, there’s usually nowhere to go but down as guys have peaked physically and athletically, while their coaches traditionally find the best way to use them.
But Josh Smith seems to be an anomaly in that he’s dealing with a new role and responsibility nearly midway through his first season with the Pistons.
It’s not so much that the Pistons are putting him on the block — the advanced statistics say he’s been one of the better finishers in the paint in the NBA throughout his career, so he’s been down there — but the fact they’re placing him down there consistently, almost forcing it on him, is something Smith isn’t used to.
“It’s not a new role but we’re putting the ball in his hands a lot more down there, taking him off that perimeter so much,” Pistons coach Maurice Cheeks said after the Pistons’ blowout win in Cleveland Monday night.
“Tonight they ran two or three guys out there and allowed other guys to be open. He’s more comfortable and has a nice shot down there and opens it up for other people.”
Smith scored 20 of his 25 points in the first half, as the Pistons built an 18-point lead, mostly on the strength of their play in the paint. Naturally unselfish, as Cheeks alludes to, he’s looking for other cutters, shooters and interior players while in an offensive motion.
“I’ve had plays called for me but, like I said from the beginning, this is a new experience for me,” Smith said. “It’s a lot of things I’m taking on that I haven’t in the years I’ve been playing. I’m accepting the challenge and trying to embrace it.”
Being looked at to jump-start the Pistons offense instead of fitting into the crevices of a game or being a flat-out afterthought is a new experience — and the situation calls for him to be aggressive.
Considering he’s usually defended by an inferior perimeter-based player on the low post, it opens up offensive weapons for the Pistons.
“I think everybody’s noticing it,” Smith said. “The head coach is noticing it’s a strength in our game early on. I’m just trying to do a conscious effort of not settling and being efficient on the low block.”
Since Smith and Cheeks had their “Come to Jesus” talk before the Pistons played the Portland Trail Blazers on Dec. 15, Smith has led the team in scoring with 23.8 points (six games), and the offense generally runs better with him on the block, perhaps even better than it does when Greg Monroe is used as a hub.
It’s not that Smith is the more polished offensive product, but he’s stronger with the ball and can operate better in tight spaces than Monroe at this stage.
Monroe needs space to be maximized, and hasn’t yet trusted his improving mid-range jumper, so his drives to the basket are often clogged with defenders, leading to the occasional awkward possession.
Smith has never been used as a go-to player, in part because he played with Joe Johnson and Al Horford during his most productive years in Atlanta. Johnson required a lot of isolation sets while Horford often worked on the block and in pick and rolls.
“I’m getting used to being a little selfish but optimistic at the same time, being aware of for the double team and looking for my teammates,” Smith said. “When I get it going, it draws attention and I can be a distributor from that point.”
Smith, whether it was by choice or circumstance, often went away from the basket, leading to the frustration of Hawks fans, and the general basketball observer.
“He would be so damned good if he stopped taking those jumpers,” an NBA coach said recently before a game, referring to Smith.
It certainly didn’t take a rocket scientist to notice Smith’s propensity to drift to the outside for perimeter jumpers. With Drummond and Monroe operating down low, there wasn’t much space to find for Smith, and given his tendency to slide to the perimeter, it didn’t seem like he needed much prodding.
But with Monroe and even Brandon Jennings being better suited as second options, perhaps the Pistons’ new wrinkle — and new role for their $50 million man — will bring more than some temporary holiday cheer.