Smith’s release not only reason Pistons turned season around quickly

When Josh Smith was on the floor, most of Detroit's offensive sets ran through him, which often ground them to an immediate halt.

Tim Fuller

The Pistons haven’t won seven straight games just because they released Josh Smith.

The only way that would be possible is if Smith were the worst player in the NBA, and even given Houston’s problems since they picked him up, that’s a little hard to believe.

But Smith’s departure has definitely improved the Pistons on both ends of the floor and, more importantly, allowed Stan Van Gundy to balance his playing rotation.

The biggest direct impact has been on Detroit’s offense. When Smith was on the floor, most of Detroit’s offensive sets ran through him, which often ground them to an immediate halt. 

Now, Brandon Jennings and D.J. Augustin are running things with more freedom, and the effects have been enormous. Jennings, who struggled through the early part of the season, is averaging 19.3 points and 5.9 assists per game in Detroit’s winning streak, while Augustin came off the bench to score 26 in Wednesday’s upset win in Dallas.

The Pistons have also been shooting much better during the winning streak. With Smith, they were hitting 33 percent of their 3-pointers and 48 percent in the paint — both very poor averages. In the last seven games, though, those percentages have jumped to 40.7 percent and 55 percent, which would put them among the league leaders.

Smith wasn’t missing all of those shots, but his role in the offense contributed a great deal. With the ball in his hands, Detroit was often forced to shoot late in the shot clock, meaning a desperate jumper or a drive to a rim already clogged by the presence of Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe. 

Now, with Jennings or Augustin in control, the ball movement is much better, and the Pistons are getting better shots earlier in the clock. With Smith replaced by a more traditional small forward like Kyle Singler, Caron Butler or Jodie Meeks, there is one fewer defender in the lane, opening things up for penetration and entry passes.

So, yes, eating Smith’s salary has made a huge impact, but there’s a second player who has also played a large role in Detroit’s on-court renaissance — Meeks. He missed the first 22 games of the season with a back injury, and the Pistons went 3-19. Since his arrival, they’ve gone 9-4, with the four losses to quality teams — the Clippers, Mavericks, Raptors and Nets.

Meeks was signed during the summer to do one thing — give the Pistons the outside shooting that they badly needed — and he has accomplished that. He’s making 47 percent of his 3-pointers, while no one else on the roster is over 40 percent, and he’s Detroit’s leading scorer on a per-minute basis.

"This is exactly what we expected from Jodie when we signed him," Van Gundy said after a recent game. "He gives us a serious scoring threat that teams always have to respect, and with him coming off the bench, it means that our second unit is just as strong as our first unit. That’s huge."

With Meeks playing and Smith gone, the Pistons have gone from having one of the NBA’s worst offenses to one of its best, all without losing much on the defensive end of the floor.

Will it last? Well, not at this level — Detroit’s not going to finish the season with a 52-game winning streak — but if the Pistons build on what they have, they’ve got a legitimate shot of getting close to .500 by season’s end.

In a bad Eastern Conference, that means, even with the worst start in team history, the Pistons are in the postseason picture. Tom Gores has made a lot of big-money moves since coming to Auburn Hills, but paying Josh Smith more than $30 million to not play for the team might be the biggest one of them all.