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Can Josh Smith play in Detroit as a SF?

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When the news broke that Josh Smith signed a four year deal with Detroit, the discussion started as to whether he could play as a small forward alongside Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe. According to, he played as a SF 9% of the time he was on the court last season, while posting a 16.1 PER in those minutes. So while he hasn’t played a ton of minutes at his assumed new position, he does have some experience in a big lineup. Can he fit alongside Drummond and Monroe and find a role in the offense that fits his strengths?

Cutting off Post 

One of the best options for the Detroit SFs last season was cutting to the rim when their man doubled the post after the catch. According to Synergy Sports, Detroit scored 1.17 points per possession off of cuts, which was 17th in the league. When the defense chooses to double Monroe or Drummond in the post, their teammates must be able to find the open space and be ready to dive to the rim if their man is the doubler.

In these clips below, you can see how Kyle Singler finds the open area and cuts once the double team swarms the post man. Smith will likely be a perimeter oriented player and will need to be able to find similar space when available so that he can get easy looks at the rim.

This is one area where Smith should have no trouble fitting in, as long as he does not settle for jump shots. In looking at the chart Kirk Goldsberry prepared, Smith is one of the best players around the basket. If his man leaves him when the ball enters the post, Smith should have plenty of room to utilize his biggest asset, finishing at the rim.

Here are a few examples of Smith cutting when a post player has the ball in Atlanta. This shows that Smith has a feel for the open spaces and a willingness to expose the open areas. The key will be finding the space from a new angle, as he will be playing a new position, where the angles he will be cutting from are different and not standing still while being content with jump shots.

If Smith does fall back on the jump shot regularly, he will be an inefficient player on offense, as seen in the Goldsberry chart above. Fans across the league have called him out for his continuous desire to hoist jump shots, yet he took over 2 three point shots a game last season at a 30% accuracy rate. He’s never been a good shooter and it seems unlikely that this will be the summer his fortunes turn.

The first clip below gives us a good example of how Smith could be ineffective as a small forward in Detroit. With Al Horford and Zaza Pachulia on the floor alongside Smith, Pachulia is the man making the cut when Horford catches the ball on the block, leaving Smith with  no room in the paint which forces him to stand in the corner.


This causes Smith to take a jump shot once the ball is swung to him in the corner. This is not the type of shot Smith should be taking but this is the kind of the shot that will be available to him more if the paint is clogged by another cutter. Detroit has to be wary of this and will need to find some way to either reverse nine years of poor shooting or get him not to take as many perimeter shots.

Pick and Roll Cuts

Similar to openings off of post ups, Smith should have plenty of opportunities to cut off the pick and roll. Detroit was one of the most efficient teams in possessions ended by the pick and roll screener, as they scored 1.08 PPP according to Synergy Sports, good for 9th in the NBA. Smith only had 80 possessions that ended with a shot by him as the pick and roll ballhandler and I expect similar small usage in the ball screen in Detroit. This means that again, he needs to find the space to cut to the rim in the space created by the ball screen and not take jump shots.

This screen shot, from the third clip in the below video, illustrates the key decision Smith will have to face in Detroit. Although he is the power forward in this lineup, he is on the wing when the pick and roll is initiated. As the defense rotates to cover Horford on the roll, Smith has a decision: does he take the clear entry to the rim for the easy layup or does he stand and wait for the kick out and the long range jump shot?


In this clip, he glides into the paint and is rewarded with a dump off pass for the easy finish. This illustrates again how the choice between a cut and a jump shot is the key to how successful his offense will be playing beside the two bigs of the Pistons. The two other clips in the video show Smith finding the passing lanes from areas of the court where the power forward is usually stationed, so he needs to find the new angles when he starts his cuts from a different angle. He showed in Atlanta that he has the knowledge to find the open space and elite finishing at the rim. Now he just needs to transfer that skill to a new position in Detroit.

With one of Detroit’s strengths being the finishing of the ball screener, there will be plenty of opportunities for Smith to shoot three pointers after the defense rotates over to stop this action. You can see below the open shots for Singler after the ball screen due to the space created by the help defense.

Just like the post jumpers video above, the degree to which Smith chooses cuts over jump shots will be the factor in determining Smith’s fit in the Detroit offense. Can he find the open space from a new angle? Does he settle for jump shots when the paint is clogged or does he keep the ball moving? The answers to these questions will determine how effective he is in his new position for his new team.

Does he fit?

While this big lineup of Drummond/Monroe/Smith will definitely need some time to gel, I am not sure whether Smith will ever be able to fit effectively belong side the two incumbent bigs. Smith should have no trouble finding the space to cut off either the post entry or pick and roll when the space is available, even from the new angle, but the amount of open room will significantly decrease from his time in Atlanta. This will be due to Drummond or Monroe, whichever is not involved in the primary action, utilizing the space that Smith did in Atlanta. This spacing dilemma will be the topic that will dominate any discussion about this move and concerns about the ability for these three to find proper spacing are valid.

This will make it that much easier for Smith to fall back on the jump shots, highlighting his biggest weakness. If he turns into a bigger jump shooter than he was last year (while assuming he doesn’t make a big leap in the next few months, which seems like a fair assumption at this time), he will bog down the offense and bring the potential efficiency way down. If he is able to probe the defense and find open space for cuts, decreasing his reliance on the jump shot, this could turn out to be a great signing for the Pistons. That will be a tough thing for the Pistons to balance though and it seems to be more likely that the area that Smith would best be utilized in is already clogged. Keep a close eye on his choices in the early going of the new season.

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Written by Joshua Riddell

July 7, 2013 at 4:10 am

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