Ish Smith has been the Pistons savior and MVP

Ish Smith was signed this offseason to provide point guard depth for the top-heavy Detroit Pistons, but he’s shown himself to be much more this season.

Ish Smith seemed a fairly safe if unexciting free agent signing for the Detroit Pistons in July. Signing a three-year $18 million contract didn’t really move the needle, but at least he was probably better than Steve Blake. For a playoff team on the rise, better than Steve Blake seemed like enough in relief of Reggie Jackson who came up just short of an All Star bid last season.

As it turns out, all hell has broken loose from day one for the Detroit Pistons. Reggie Jackson was diagnosed with knee tendinitis on the first day of training camp and missed the first 21 games. A team that was expected by some to win as many as 50 games (guilty) and contend for the fourth or fifth seed in the East (also guilty) suddenly shifted into survival mode at the beginning of October.

The belief was that if the Pistons could stay within a couple games of the .500 mark, Ish Smith would be hailed as a hero who had done valiant work and then Reggie Jackson would take things from there and all would be well.

It turned out the Pistons did a bit better than expected under Smith, going 11-10 and ending on a thrilling high note with a three-game road winning streak over the Charlotte Hornets, Atlanta Hawks and Boston Celtics immediately before Jackson’s return. It looked like the Pistons had done all they needed to in order to set up a big run over the last three-quarters of the season.

As we all know, things didn’t go as planned when Jackson returned either. The Pistons fell off a cliff almost immediately with ugly losses left and right and a players-only meeting just a couple weeks after his return. Even though Jackson got his form back and went on one of the best runs of his career after getting his legs under him, the Pistons still struggled and were never able to get their equilibrium back.

When Jackson came back down to earth after his own surge, Smith’s performance has gone on to new heights.

Over the past 13 games in particular (since getting benched against the Utah Jazz on the Pistons West Coast road trip), Ish Smith has gone on his own torrid stretch.

In fact, since January 15th, Smith is fourth in the NBA in offensive rating among all players who have appeared in 13 games behind just Nikola Jokic, Stephen Curry and Draymond Green. Smith’s 117.3 offensive rating has been supported by some of the best shooting of his career as he’s hitting 60.2 percent from the floor on 12.8 shots per 36 minutes.

Smith has provided more than just selectively efficient (if infrequent) shooting. He rebounds above his size and has a rebounding percentage just 0.3 percent worse than Jon Leuer (Smith is pulling down 7.5 percent of available rebounds) and he takes care of the ball better than almost any point guard in the NBA. In fact his 3.11 assist-to-turnover ratio is 14th among guards since January 14th.

Smith’s teammates have flourished alongside him over the past few weeks as well. Andre Drummond is averaging 1.29 points per shot with a 65.4 field goal percentage while playing with Smith. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Aron Baynes and Marcus Morris have all averaged 1.18 points per shot while Tobias Harris has been the breakout star while playing with Smith.

Harris is averaging 1.19 points per shot on 59.7 percent true shooting and the Pistons have a +17.7 net rating when the two share the floor. Part of that is due to the synergy that Smith and Harris have found lately in the pick and roll.

Speaking of synergy, per Synergy SST, Ish Smith’s production in the pick and roll has soared. Once one of the worst PnR ball handlers in the NBA with production around .7 points per possession, he’s now in the 53rd percentile and is scoring about .809 points per possession. That’s a huge improvement and worth keeping an eye on going forward.

While the Pistons have thrived when Smith plays and struggles when Jackson is on the floor, it’s not as simple as moving Jackson to the bench and starting Smith. One of the reasons he’s flourished is that he gets to feast upon bench units while the struggling (and almost certainly far from healthy) Reggie Jackson has no such luxury.

Starting Smith would negate the big edge he has over opposition reserve units, and Jackson just shouldn’t be expected to carry the load in the role Smith has played against opposing benches. The best way for the Pistons to capitalize on Smith’s tremendous recent play is to increase his playing time off the bench and reduce Jackson’s workload. If Reggie Jackson can play his starter opponents to anything close to a draw as he labors through lingering issues with knee tendinitis, Ish Smith should be able to continue to shred benches as he’s done for a month.

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