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NBA Saturday: The Josh Smith Effect

The Pistons have thrived since waiving Josh Smith. Should the Houston Rockets be concerned?

Jesse Blancarte profile picture
Updated 10 months ago on
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Throughout his career, Josh Smith has been a versatile, do-it-all type of forward. Standing at 6’9, and with impressive athleticism, Smith has been an impactful scorer, rebounder and weak-side shot blocker, among other things. But some things that Smith has never been is a role player or good perimeter shooter. He has never shot above 33.2 percent from beyond-the-arc, but has averaged more than 1.2 three-point attempts per game nine times in his career (and at his current pace, this year will be his tenth). Only once has Smith shot over 50 percent from the field overall, which unsurprisingly was the last season in which Smith averaged less than 1.5 three-point attempts per game (2009-10).

For years Smith has been able to overcome his shot selection issues with his ability to impact games in other ways. In fact, it wasn’t until his tenth NBA season (2013-14), and first season with the Detroit Pistons, that Smith had a player efficiency rating (PER) below the league average of 15 (14.1).

A partial explanation for Smith’s poor play last season stems from the fact that he was playing small forward alongside Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond. Smith has played both forward positions throughout his career, but he is at his best when playing power forward. Consider that in the 2009-10 season when Smith shot above 50 percent from the field (50.5), the average distance for his field goals was 6.5 feet, per basketball-reference.com. Unsurprisingly, Smith played power forward mostly that season. Last season, as a small forward, Smith’s average shot was from 12.5 feet, which was a career high. Smith shot a career low 41.9 percent from the field as he was systematically required to be a perimeter player.

So Smith is less efficient when he takes jump shots instead of shots at or near the rim. That’s certainly not a condition exclusive to Smith. Blake Griffin is taking more jump shots than ever before and is shooting a lower percentage from the field this season than in past seasons. But for Smith, the drop to a 46.3 true shooting percentage, uptick to a career high 3.4 three-point attempts per game, coupled with a 25.4 usage percentage led to a disappointing first season with Detroit.

This season, newly hired Pistons team president and head coach Stan Van Gundy was open to working with Smith rather than dumping him in a trade. The Pistons went 5-23 to start the season, and on December 22 Van Gundy waived Smith outright with the stretch provision, eating the two years and $26 million still remaining on his contract. The move was unexpected, but even more unexpected has been the complete turnaround for the Pistons. Since waiving Smith, the Pistons have gone 7-1, finally losing to the streaking Atlanta Hawks on Friday.

After clearing waivers, Smith elected to join the Houston Rockets. Since adding Smith to the mix, the Rockets have gone 5-4. Not a terrible record for a team integrating a major player, but well off the 20-6 pace the Rockets started the season at. So Detroit got better by outright cutting Smith, and the Rockets have been worse since adding him. Let’s take a closer look at why the Pistons have improved without Smith and why the Rockets have had mixed results with him through nine games.

In 28 games played, the Pistons were outscored by 11.6 points per 100 possessions with Smith on the floor. Only Cartier Martin and Spencer Dinwiddie had worst net ratings, however, both Martin and Dinwiddie played less than 100 minutes through those 28 games. But it was not as if the Pistons were beating up on opponents when Smith was on the bench. When Smith was off the court, the Pistons were outscored by 1.3 points per 100 possessions. That’s a +10.3 swing, which is huge, but it wouldn’t on its own explain the Pistons’ recent winning streak.

But consider Smith’s inefficiency and usage percentage. Smith led the Pistons in usage percentage (excluding Gigi Datome in one game played) at 24.9 percent. Smith had the team’s lowest true shooting percentage (41.7 percent), but took the most field goals per game (14 shots per game on 39.1 percent shooting). But Smith was putting up a decent nightly state line of 13.1 points, 7.2 rebounds, 4.7 assists, 1.3 steals and 1.7 blocks, which made it appear like he was having a somewhat positive impact for the Pistons. However, as previously mentioned, Smith was using a ton of possessions to put up these numbers, and was doing so inefficiently.

Since waiving Smith, the Pistons have distributed their possessions to other players, with Brandon Jennings as the primary beneficiary. Before Smith was waived, Jennings had a 22.9 usage percentage, which was fourth on the team. Through 25 games played with Smith on the team, Jennings had a 48.8 true shooting percentage. In the games played since Smith was waived, Jennings’ usage percentage has gone up to 28.6 percent, and his true shooting percentage has risen to 57.9 percent. Similarly, D.J. Augustin’s usage percentage has gone up from 21.1 percent to 26.3 percent and his true shooting percentage has gone from 48.8 percent to 56 percent. Perhaps even more importantly, both point guards’ assist percentages have risen, especially Augustin’s (27.5 percent to 41.6 percent).

With the ball in the Pistons’ point guards’ hands more often, and with clear roles defined for Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond, the Pistons have gone from the team with the worst true shooting percentage in the league (49.4 percent) to sixth best over the last eight games (55.3 percent). Additionally, through eight games in the post-Smith era, the Pistons have had the third best offense in the league (110.3 points per 100 possessions), the second best defense (95.7 points allowed per 100 possessions) and the second best net rating (14.6).

This is in stark contrast to the Pistons with Smith who were 28th in offensive efficiency (97.6 points per 100 possessions), 24th in defensive efficiency (105.8 points allowed per 100 possessions), 28th in net rating (-8.2), and dead last in true shooting percentage (49.4 percent).

While this turnaround has been impressive, the Pistons haven’t played the toughest opponents recently. However, they did knock off the Cleveland Cavaliers, San Antonio Spurs and Dallas Mavericks (all road games), which is pretty impressive for a team that started the season 5-28.

To summarize, without Smith the Pistons are scoring 12.7 more points per 100 possessions, allowing 10.1 less points per 100 possessions, and have improved their net rating by 22.8 points. The basic explanation for this: Take the ball out of an inefficient player’s hands and give the ball to more efficient players (Jennings and Augustin), and the offense should improve. As for the defensive improvement, fewer missed jump shots means less easy scoring opportunities for opponents against a scrambling Detroit defense (opponents’ fast-break points down from 12.9 to 10.4). Secondly, opponents are scoring less points off of Detroit turnovers (opponents’ points off turnovers down from 16.1 to 13.6). On average that is five less points allowed per game.

Now, let’s remember that this is just an eight game sample, and the Pistons will likely come back to earth at some point. And as Bradford Doolittle of ESPN (Insider) explained earlier this week, in the post-merger era there is a traceable improvement from teams that have during the season removed a high usage player (above 25 percent) that played heavy minutes. But this improvement is generally limited unless an impact player is brought in and takes over those possessions. Nevertheless, the Pistons now look poised to make a run for a playoff seed as they are now just three games back of the eight seed Miami HEAT in the loss column with more than half the NBA season yet to be played.

Considering the Pistons’ recent success, should the Rockets be concerned that adding Smith will hurt them? To try and answer this, let’s take a look at the Rockets’ last nine games.

The Rockets have beaten the Memphis Grizzlies, Charlotte Hornets, Miami HEAT, Cleveland Cavaliers and New York Knicks, and have lost to the San Antonio Spurs, Washington Wizards, Charlotte Hornets, and Chicago Bulls. They have beaten a few quality opponents and lost to four playoff-quality teams (three of those losses were on the road as well). So upfront it does not appear that Smith has had any sort of disastrous impact on the team.

However, Smith’s numbers through nine games may be a cause for concern moving forward. Through nine games with the Rockets, Smith’s PER rating is down (9.6), his three-point attempts are up (from 1.3 to 1.9) in less minutes played per game, his total rebounding percentage is down (18.6 to 16.7), his assist rate is down (25.2 to 12.8), his block percentage is down (4.3 to 2.8), his turnover percentage is up (14.1 to 20.9) and his usage percentage is identical at 25.2 percent. One statistic that is up for Smith, however, is his true shooting percentage, which has risen to 45.5 percent with the Rockets. So far Smith has been less effective with the Rockets than he was in 28 games with the Pistons. Fortunately for Houston, Smith’s negative impact has been limited because he is playing roughly seven minutes less per game than he was with Detroit.

Before signing Smith, the Rockets were 20th in offensive efficiency (101.7 points per 100 possessions), second in defensive efficiency (97.5 points allowed per 100 possessions) and were 11th in net rating (4.3). In nine games with Smith, the Rockets are eighth in offensive efficiency (105.5 points per 100 possessions), 15th in defensive efficiency (101.6 points allowed per 100 possessions), and tenth in net rating (3.9). The Rockets’ true shooting percentage has also rise from 53.5 percent to 55.4 percent.

As these numbers suggest, Smith has not imploded the Rockets from within so far. But part of the explanation for that is Smith’s reduction in minutes, and the Rockets keeping the ball in their most effective players’ hands. James Harden’s usage percentage has remained roughly the same since Smith arrived, while Dwight Howard’s has decreased just a few percentage points. Patrick Beverley and Trevor Ariza similarly have for the most part maintained their usage percentage as well.

There is certainly an adjustment period that Smith and the Rockets are going through, which leaves room for improvement moving forward. However, it is disconcerting that Smith has increased his three-point shot attempts, is providing less production than he had with the Pistons before being waived, and is still using a heavy dose of possessions. Fortunately for Houston, they have managed to keep the ball in their best players’ hands for the most part, and have kept Smith’s minutes down so far. But considering that Smith is currently ranked 438 out of 444 players in ESPN’s real plus-minus metric (-5.09) and 443 out of 444 played in wins above replacement (-1.78), and has a career-low PER rating for the season (13.4), the Rockets should be very specific with the way they utilize Smith moving forward.

Smith should continue to play a limited amount of minutes and the ball should be kept in Harden’s hands. Ideally Smith would be content to play good defense against opposing forwards, set good screens for teammates, get weak-side blocks, rebound and fight for garbage points. But Smith has never taken a backseat role, and his first nine games with Houston suggest that he still believes he is a top-level player, which should be a major cause of concern for the Rockets.

Clippers Feeling the Loss of Darren Collison

The Los Angeles Clippers’ second unit has been a disappointment so far this season. Jordan Farmar and Spencer Hawes were Doc Rivers’ big free agent acquisitions during the offseason, but both have struggled to hit their stride so far with the team.

On Friday, Rivers addressed the team’s second unit woes and noted that the loss of backup point guard Darren Collison is a big reason for the drop-off.

“We miss his versatility,” Rivers said. “The one thing I think we miss, his pace. I thought he set the pace for the second unit and we don’t have a great pace. You know, they’re (the reserves) playing better, but they still don’t have the pace like the first unit. Our second unit last year was faster sometimes than our first unit.

“This year, we’re slower and I don’t like that. But the biggest thing D.C. did, to me, what people missed was he guarded the points a lot and allowed CP (Chris Paul) to guard 2s. And it would give CP rest. But CP, his weakside defense, with his hands and his ability to get steals, is off the charts. And so we like him off the ball. This year, we haven’t had that ability.”

Farmar was brought in because of his size at point guard and his three-point shooting. But Farmar rarely creates easy scoring opportunities for his teammates and too often defers to teammate Jamal Crawford. If the Clippers’ second-unit had players that could create their own shots that wouldn’t be an issue, but that isn’t the case with players like Glen Davis, Reggie Bullock, and Hedo Turkoglu playing significant minutes.

Those who are critical of the Clippers point to the small forward position as their Achilles heel. However, Matt Barnes has played well recently, and the Clippers starting unit is outscoring opponents by 16.6 points per 100 possessions. The real weakness is at backup point guard, where the Clippers are being outscored by 4.2 points per 100 possessions with Farmar on the floor. This is in stark contrast to last year where the Clippers outscored opponents by 5.7 points with Collison on the floor.

The blame should not fall completely on Farmar as the other reserves have been hit-and-miss as well. But last season Collison pushed the pace, attacked the rim, and set up teammates for easy buckets. As Rivers said, the Clippers are missing that this season and is something the team will need to address if they want to have a shot of coming out of the Western Conference, which seems to be getting stronger each passing day.

All stats courtesy of basketball-reference.com and NBA.com/stats

Jesse Blancarte is a Deputy Editor for Basketball Insiders. He is also an Attorney and a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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