Singler is making a higher percentage of his two-pointers, three-pointers and free throws than Smith. Of course, Singler shoots less often than Smith, and that selectivity boosts Singler’s efficiency. But that’s the point.
The Pistons’ starting lineup doesn’t need the high-volume shooter Smith has become (he takes more shots per game than Dwyane Wade). Monroe and Andre Drummond, two extremely efficient scorers, deserve more touches. If Singler replaces Smith, some of Smith’s shots would go to Singler, but even more should be allocated to Monroe and Drummond.
Plus, Singler’s biggest advantage over Smith is three-point shooting. Another threat on the perimeter would space the floor better, leaving Monroe and Drummond more room to operate in the post.
There’s no question Smith is better defensively than Singler. But Smith might not defend small forwards better than Singler.
Smith is extremely agile for a power forward and built his sterling defensive reputation at that position, wreaking havoc on less nimble players. As a small forward, he’s getting lost chasing quicker players around screens on the perimeter.
Singler is a middle-of-the-road defender, but his best defensive position is small forward. His long arms help, as do his years of experience on the perimeter — an advantage over Smith, who mostly has been a power forward.
The numbers support this perception. Opposing small forwards have a 15.1 PER against Singler and 18.6 against Smith, according to 82Games.
Fortunately, we’re not just guessing about whether Singler would fit better than Smith with Detroit’s other four starters: Brandon Jennings, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Monroe and Drummond.
Those four have played 54 minutes with Singler. Although that’s not the 369 minutes they’ve spent with Smith, those 54 minutes make it Detroit’s fifth-most-used lineup and provide at least some perspective.
Here’s how the foursome has performed with Smith and Singler, plus how each mark would rank among the NBA’s 30 teams over the full season.
? Offensive rating: 97.3 (27th)
? Defensive rating: 104.0 (19th)
? Offensive rating: 108.0 (3rd)
? Defensive rating: 92.3 (1st)
Before reading too much into that, both sets of numbers would regress toward each other if Singler replaced Smith.
Most teams start a lineup that’s very effective, and it’s possible the Pistons just can’t assemble a really good five-man unit with anyone on this roster. If that’s the case, whomever Detroit trots out to start games is the sacrificial lamb to have its efficiency numbers slaughtered.
Then the reserves enter and perform better against other reserves. Plus, backups are used more strategically, so they often receive a higher percentage of their playing time when the matchup favors them.
A Jennings/Caldwell-Pope/Smith/Monroe/Drummond lineup appears every game, whether the matchup is good or bad. And because the Pistons are a poor team, it’s usually bad.
Cheeks uses a Jennings/Caldwell-Pope/Singler/Monroe/Drummond lineup mostly when it’s an advantageous matchup. If that lineup became the starting unit, it would face opposing starters whether the matchup were good or bad — and more often than previously, it would be bad.
But the difference in lineup efficiency is so stark, with all the other evidence, that the Pistons should at least test how much context has affected those lineups’ efficiency.
Plus, bringing Smith off the bench would make it easier for Cheeks to stagger the minutes of his bigs. Detroit is at its best when precisely two of Smith, Monroe and Drummond — no matter which pairing — are in the game. Smith doesn’t even need to lose playing time to make this work, just the prestige of his starting spot.
Of course, I’ve so far ignored what could be a major issue.
Smith is the Pistons’ highest-paid player, having just signed a four-year, $54-million contract this summer. Singler will make just more than $1 million this season and again the next.
In the NBA, salary dictates power, and Smith’s salary trumps the combined salary of Cheeks and Singler by some magnitude.
That’s why Smith got the first crack at starting at small forward, but it doesn’t mean he should hold the spot indefinitely. It’s not working, and as the Pistons are slipping out of playoff position, even in a horrid Eastern Conference, a change is necessary.
And I think Smith wants to alter the perception of him as difficult, so he might go with the move, at least publicly.