Auburn Hills — Talk of ex-Piston Josh Smith's first visit to Detroit tonight since his release was approached with carefully chosen words and well-considered facial expressions in the Pistons locker room Friday.
Players are "released" all the time in the NBA, usually players at the end of the bench not good enough to stay with a team. The Pistons' dramatic improvement following Smith's release last month proves his case as a prime example.
But as much as Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy likes to sugarcoat it, he felt a player who was owed at least $40 million over the next three seasons was most valuable as an empty $5 million cap filler.
Which is why Van Gundy is doing everything he can to downplay the unusual circumstances surrounding Smith's return. He has tries to write it off as a means of getting other players a chance to show what they can do, but the teams dramatic turnaround makes it appear Smith's presence hung over the locker room like a dark cloud, and Smith has always said he's an easy target for criticism.
"I don't know Josh's mind-set," Van Gundy said. "I'm sure he'll want to come back and play well. I think almost everybody does when they come back and play their old teams. So sure, he'll want to play well."
Such blatant rejection is bound to motivate any athlete.
"There's always a little bit (extra motivation) — especially when you get cut," said Pistons forward Anthony Tolliver, who played with Smith in Atlanta in 2012-13.
"That's extra. Getting traded is one thing. Getting cut is another. We expect to get the full-fledged Josh Smith experience, that's a way to put it. He's gonna come in here and want to have a good game, and obviously want to win. But he's gonna want to be a big part of that."
Pistons fans had their own experience with the "full-fledged Smith experience," and will likely let him hear it when he checks into the game. They didn't often see Smith at his explosive, versatile best.
They saw the one who frustrated them, and whose strong personality was a bad fit for a young, unstable team in search of an identity.
"You hear it. Players hear it," Greg Monroe said about fans who often got on Smith when he became too jump shot-happy. "As far as how the fans are gonna react? I don't know. But that's besides the point."
Some have suggested the Pistons fans should give Smith a backhanded standing ovation rather than boo him. At any rate fans will not sit silent when Smith launches a jumper.
Monroe agrees that Smith's return is unlike Richard Hamilton's or Tayshaun Prince's or Rodney Stuckey's.
"The thing about this is, other than Rip — and that's not even still the same as what happened with Josh—those guys have been here for years, accomplished a lot and they left," Monroe said. "Tayshaun got traded, so it was different.
"Rip, you know, ran its course. Stuckey's was mutual. Obviously the circumstances with him were different, so knowing him, I'm pretty sure any player would have some kind of extra incentive to come in here and play well to help his team win."
Smith, by all accounts, has been a model citizen in Houston, joining the 1-2 punch of James Harden and Dwight Howard. Howard is out with a knee injury, while Harden is a candidate for Most Valuable Player.
Smith has come off the bench for 15 of 19 games as a Rocket, shooting 44 percent compared to 39 in Detroit. He's shooting 29 percent on 3-pointers, compared to 24 percent.
"If he wants to take 10 3-pointers we're not gonna say no," Tolliver said. "But at the same time I've seen him make five or six. It's not like he's incapable. Last game he was 4-for-5. He can make them. Getting easy baskets first, getting layups and 10 footers and 12 footers and floaters — and also assists, we know he's a heck of a player, we all know that."
Jonas Jerebko channeled Seattle Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch and former Piston Rasheed Wallace with his canned answers about how the Pistons should guard Smith.
"Uhh, we'll see what coach says tomorrow," Jerebko said before using Wallace's famous line, "both teams played hard."
Smith has said he was happy for the Pistons players for their turnaround and keeps in touch with Brandon Jennings and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. But Smith's return doesn't seem to weigh heavily on the minds of many.
"Not to sound careless, it's not a topic of discussion," Monroe said. "If they talk to him, they talk to him. But it's not like we're in here trying to figure out who does."
Tolliver summed up the general consensus about Smith.
"He's a very smart player," Tolliver said. "Even though he doesn't make smart decisions, that sometimes a lot of players do, he's a very smart guy."
Rockets at Pistons
Tip-off: 7:30 Saturday, The Palace, Auburn Hills
Outlook: The Pistons have lost four straight, three since the season-ending injury to Brandon Jennings. ... Rockets G James Harden is averaging 27.3 points, 6.8 assists and 5.6 rebounds.