Smith deserves the most credit, but Maurice Cheeks certainly played a role.
“I went to him,” Cheeks said before the Pistons played the league-leading Indiana Pacers on Monday at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. “What prompted it? What could I do to get him better shots, to get him more comfortable on the block. It was a two-way conversation. Him being better makes us better.”
“We had a discussion about playing with him a little bit more, getting him off the perimeter,” Cheeks said. “Not allowing him to catch so many jump shots on the perimeter. Getting him on the elbow and on the block so he can drive his guy.”
This is why Cheeks’ players like him.
Cheeks didn’t scold Smith for taking bad shots, though the coach would have been within his rights to do so. Instead, he shifted responsibility from Smith to himself. “What could I do to get him better shots?” That’s how you connect with NBA players.
It seems Cheeks does a lot of his best coaching between games, and that’s often a wise strategy. During the chaos of games, when Smith is in the middle of a physically daunting task and needs to focus on it, isn’t the time to chide his shot selection.
That doesn’t mean Cheeks sits idly during games. Cheeks even yelled at the team to give Smith the ball more against Portland, according to Vince Ellis of the Detroit Free Press. But his conversation with Smith has produced the Piston’ most meaningful stretch of quality play this season.
If Smith keeps this up – and it’s far from guaranteed he will – the Pistons could be a strong contender for the No. 3 seed. If Smith reverts to his old bad habits, well, it will be time for Cheeks to earn his paycheck again with another thoughtful between-game conversation.
The Pistons might suffer immediately if Cheeks doesn’t address Smith during the game he begins shooting poorly, but in the long term, they should be better off with a coach who understands how to speak to players.