I hereby, under the very real threat of looking like an idiot in the not-so-distant future, endorse Josh Smith as a Detroit Piston.
Okay, raise your hand if you thought Josh Smith would ever be a Detroit Piston. Alright, all of you can quit lying and put your dang hands down because nobody thought that when Free Agency began the Pistons would actually land a big fish, one of the sub-superstars that were right under Dwight Howard and Chris Paul in the pecking order. This is the great gamble and last stand of Joe Dumars. Many pundits have scorned the move as a stopgap measure, a half-hearted attempt to throw money at a big name, or ludicrously, a repeat of the Charlie Villanueva and Ben Gordon signings. I will now go on record as not being quite as Pollyanna as certain other Pistons fans. Josh Smith is not going to turn the Pistons into championship contenders overnight. He has some bad habits, some frustrating habits, and some actual limitations. By necessity he will be playing as a small forward on offense, a position that he never quite mastered in his early Atlanta days and one that is not quite suited to his talents when it comes to outside shooting. As others have more eloquently alluded to, Smith’s talents are a mix of all three frontcourt positions, but its as power-forward that he thrived next to his former running mate, the ruthlessly efficient Al Horford (himself an undersized center).
Now he’s taking his talents to Motown and the grand experiment is upon us, with many wondering exactly what the hell to expect out of this. What do we know for sure? Well, this wasn’t the Case of Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva Redux. Those guys are what they are and Gordon stopped being what he was almost as soon as he donned a Pistons uniform. Josh Smith is a defensive maestro. When you think he’s not playing hard enough you realize he is still playing harder than almost anyone else on that side of the floor, as if his long arms and rim protecting instincts just won’t let him ease up.
Immediately he becomes the best player on the Pistons roster, a player that has never been the alpha dog, even when he was faraway the most exciting player on his own team. As a Hawk Smith bowed to the seniority of Joe Johnson and also saw that Horford’s star rose high above his as he was time and time again denied a spot in the All-Star game. In Detroit the situation will be a bit different. The Pistons will find themselves with three frontcourt leviathans, each capable of a different type of destruction in Smith, Greg Monroe, and Andre Drummond. Just thinking about their collective lack of outside shooting makes me a bit queasy, but these three can make things happen, and perhaps their styles will end up complimenting each other and Joe Dumars will crowd-surf to a second championship as an executive. The lack of shooting amongst their best players is obviously a concern, a concern that the Pistons look to be addressing by adding as many shooters as possible, from lottery pick Kentavious Caldwell-Pope to apparent shooting wizard Luigi Datome (confession: I have never heard of him but if he can shoot the lights out I owe him a coke).
As I’ve said all along, barring a sudden LeBron trade or snagging Chris Paul in Free Agency (welp, that didn’t happen), the Pistons best hope is the internal development of their existing young talent. As Tom Ziller opined, the Pistons somewhat resemble the Grizzlies (if you squint), and it would be quite the pleasant surprise for Brandon Knight’s career to follow the same basic outlines of Mike Conley’s. I’m not sure this is a realistic hope but its not outlandish, and Knight has been given the ultimate green light to do his thing when the Pistons opted to not draft any of the top point guard prospects that miraculously fell to them on Draft Day. And if Brandon isn’t up to the challenge, Peyton Siva has been quietly impressing bona-fide skeptics with his play in the Orlando Summer League. Championship point-guards have been found in stranger places (Chauncey Billups was practically persona non grata when he came to Detroit). A few more veterans on the wings and some reliable outside shooting and the Pistons have a recipe for playoff contention. When (I will be an optimist and eschew thinking about if entirely) Drummond and Monroe take the leap the Pistons could join the sub-elite or even the small tribe of contenders.
So Dumars made his splash Free Agency move after all. It was a doozy and it could all blow up in myriad ways. On the other hand…What if it works? The open court athleticism and shot-blocking is going to be brutal and beautiful at the very least, and inspiring if they can find ways to do the little things, the smart things, the things that propelled the Bad Boys and the Go To Work Pistons to heights that seemed out of reach for such patchwork rosters often filled with no-name stars and volatile presences. Josh Smith is not a kindly shepherd to herd his new flock and do it by the books. Josh Smith is not a company man. He’s a baby wrecking ball, he is volatile, he is basically a damn volcano. He’s the spirit a talented but dispirited team like the Pistons need. Monroe in the high-post, KCP sharpshooting, Brandon Knight fourth quarter daggers (it can literally happen), Drummond dunks like artillery barrages, and Josh Smith in the middle of it all, the misunderstood given a heaping dose of responsibility, a new role and a new chance to prove his doubters (like me) wrong, a new chance to grab a piece of the Legacy Pie for himself. Will it work? I don’t know.
But I am excited to watch. It’s exciting to care about the Detroit Pistons again.