Goodwill: Josh Smith misused in Pistons' slow start

Vincent Goodwill Jr.
The Detroit News

Cleveland — It's easy to draw the conclusion that the banishment of Josh Smith has resulted in the best two outings of the Pistons' season to date.

Ball movement has been plentiful, with an abundance of open shots and a cohesiveness that had been unseen in the Stan Van Gundy era. It culminated in the Pistons' 23-point drubbing Sunday of the Cleveland Cavaliers, a team that has seemingly taken the title for "Team Turmoil" away from the Pistons — a baton the Pistons had no problem handing over.

"I think it's everybody being so unselfish. Everybody's making the extra pass, not just one guy out there making plays," Brandon Jennings said. "When guys get in the post, they're passing it back out. Guys are getting open shots. We're being very unselfish."

Jennings is the point guard in title and in skill set, but you'd never know it when Smith was around. After defensive rebounds, Smith was often the outlet man, leading the fast break and initiating the offense. (Note to coaches: All-6-foot-9 guys do not have Magic Johnson capabilities.)

Smith led the team in usage rate, an advanced stat that, in layman's terms, determines how heavily a player is involved in a team's offense, by shooting, turnovers or even passes leading to scores or shots.

He essentially controlled one-fourth of the Pistons' possessions, and ranked in the top 30 in the NBA in that category. To put in perspective, the names right below Smith are far more reliable in making plays: New Orleans' Anthony Davis, Memphis' Marc Gasol, Atlanta's Jeff Teague, Toronto's Lou Williams and Dallas' Dirk Nowitzki.

It's why Van Gundy has made such a big to-do about the Pistons having to change their offense around with Smith no longer in town — and why things have gone much smoother since in the small, two-game sample.

"Josh made so many plays for us," Van Gundy has said.

Never mind many of them led to outright disaster, as the sub-40 percent shooting nights piled up in part because a player whose shot selection has been questioned from the start of his career was given carte blanche on the floor to do whatever he pleased.

But it was Van Gundy who basically empowered Smith to do so, essentially designing the offense around an inefficient player. Jennings often started possessions passing to Smith — who tried to do everything — and despite his ability to do a bunch of things well, it appeared the burden was too much for Smith to handle.

Everyone knows Smith had been on the trading block well before the team used the stretch provision on him — where the Pistons will be responsible for the remaining balance on his massive deal but it won't affect the salary cap in a crippling way.

Van Gundy inherited Smith's contract, true, but refused to trade him in the offseason — which appeared to be mistake No. 1. Perhaps Van Gundy wanted to boost Smith's trade value by featuring him in the offense, or wanted to minimize the 3-pointers Smith was wont to take when he didn't feel involved in the offense.

Perhaps Van Gundy didn't trust Jennings, but at least he's a point guard. And although Greg Monroe's free agency makes things murky, he's not the swing-for-the-fences decision-maker Smith was.

And remember, this season was about being able to compete while developing young talent — in an Eastern Conference where a four-game winning streak puts even the worst teams in the thick of playoff contention.

Smith's start to the season was glaringly off to any casual observer, yet there was no modifications to the plan. His shooting was at a career-low rate, he wasn't finishing in the paint and it looked as if his physical gifts had started to slide.

If Van Gundy is to be believed about his statement concerning the timing of Smith's release (and we haven't been given cause to doubt him) — that it was three weeks in the making, that there was no confrontation that hastened the move and it was more about having the practice time to adjust to no longer having Smith around — then why didn't Van Gundy adjust how he wanted his anemic offense run while Smith was still here?

If Smith wasn't good enough to be on the roster any longer, and many league executives have said the Pistons were asking for more than Smith was worth on the trade market, then he shouldn't have been able to have such a profoundly negative effect on the offense.

Van Gundy was brought in to have the ultimate hammer. He pointedly said during his opening news conference, "Players don't have anywhere to run," referencing a coach-management divide, but he refused to wield it.

"OK, so now I get to go back and second-guess the first 28 games," Van Gundy said Sunday, when asked if he should've done things differently with the offense. "I mean, I'm not gonna do that. You can and it's fair. You can and it's fair. It's just nothing for me to gain like that."

If the players allowed Smith's domineering persona to take over the team and locker room, shame on them, but it certainly appears a burden has been lifted.

Make no mistake, the water certainly will level out. The Pistons won't play this well for the rest of the season, and this isn't to make Smith the villain.

He was placed in a position he was ill-equipped to handle — and it shouldn't have taken perhaps a throwing away of a season to determine that.

Pistons at Magic

Tip-off: 7 p.m. Tuesday, Amway Arena, Orlando, Fla.

TV/radio: FSD/97.1

Outlook: Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy returns to Orlando, where he coached for five seasons and led the Magic to the Finals in 2009. ... Magic F Tobias Harris averages 18.6 points and 7.1 rebounds.