Washington — Whether it’s a blip on the screen or a trend, the Josh Smith-Maurice Cheeks dynamic bears watching.
The Pistons’ $54 million summer acquisition was benched yet again in the second half a blowout loss to the Washington Wizards on Saturday after playing 18 minutes.
Player-coach squabbles — this is new, right?
Smith sat on the end of the bench throughout the final 24 minutes. Afterwards, he wasn’t happy but remained composed when discussing the frustrating situation — one that didn’t produce much of an explanation from Cheeks.
From Smith’s comments, one can glean the two had words of some sort, although it’s hard to tell the severity of them if it occurred.
“As a player, I live to play this basketball game, and it’s an honor for me to play,” Smith said. “If anybody challenges me not wanting to play, I take real offense to it.”
“Whatever decisions that somebody makes beyond my control, I can’t control. It’s what you have to ask somebody who has that power.”
Cheeks as the coach has that power, and he benched Smith along with rookie Kentavious Caldwell-Pope for the start of the second half, perhaps not to give the appearance of singling Smith out.
“I just felt I wanted to make a change and stay with the guys I went with,” Cheeks said. “It wasn’t just those two, they had bigs on the floor, so I had to stay with Greg (Monroe) and Andre (Drummond).”
Caldwell-Pope played nine minutes in the fourth quarter, but his benching was curious because he didn’t appear to make much of a negative impact.
Smith’s fiery persona and Cheeks’ calm demeanor seems to be clashing, as Smith was also benched for the second half of a November loss to Golden State and he missed a team flight from his hometown Atlanta back to Detroit following a back-to-back set. Teams usually have the following day off, but Cheeks called a practice.
Smith didn’t start the next game, but things appeared to have settled since then — until Saturday, where either tempers flared or Cheeks wanted to send a message.
“It does, it’s unfair because, like I told you, I play the game hard,” Smith said. “It’s a gracious opportunity just to be able to play my dream. When I was younger, I played this game for free year-round. This is what I love to do.
“Why wouldn’t I want to come out here and put my best foot forward every time I step on the floor? I’m competitive, I want to win at everything, whether it’s card games, playing the video games, talking trash to friends. I want to win bad, and that’s in anything I do.”
Smith’s last two games haven’t matched up with his previous six, where he’s gone from averaging 23.8 points to totaling nine in the last two games — blowout losses to the Wizards and Orlando Magic on back-to-back nights.
Smith went 2-for-7 with two missed 3-pointers in the first half Saturday.
“All my career I’ve been known as versatile,” Smith said. “If my shot isn’t working or if it’s not going in, there’s other intangibles I can apply to the game that will make me effective.”
“Basketball isn’t always predicated on who’s making shots. There’s more to it than that.”
Getting inside the mind of Cheeks isn’t the easiest, since he tends to speak in generalities and won’t disclose internal matters. But benching a player of Smith’s caliber, no matter how it’s dressed up, speaks volumes.
“This game wasn’t about Josh Smith,” Cheeks said. “The game was, we got beat. We got beat pretty good. It wasn’t because of Josh Smith, it was the overall game.”
What's the real issue?
On being singled out, Smith said: “I’m not worried about it. Like I told y’all before, when you have adverse times, character is tested. Either we’ll come closer together and make it one team or use a scapegoat to get away from what’s really at hand.”
And what the real issue Smith is referring to, only the players and coaches know.
Cheeks wouldn’t say if Smith will start Monday against the Washington Wizards at The Palace. Considering Smith appears to be the emotional barometer of the team, this could develop into a fragile situation.
“I don’t know. To me it’s over with, but some people hold grudges longer than others. I’m not saying he does,” Smith said. “I’m not the type of person that really likes to go into the coach’s office and have sit-downs. I’m more of a team-morale guy, what we can do as far as teammates are concerned to make ourselves better.”