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Versatile Smith adds to Detroit's athletic frontline

POSTED: July 9, 2013 2:58 p.m.
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Former Atlanta forward Josh Smith signed a $54 million contract with Detroit after nine seasons with the Hawks

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DETROIT – Josh Smith, the Pistons’ newest free agent-to-be, isn’t a good three-point shooter. In fact, he isn’t much of a jump shooter beyond 12 feet. This isn’t good news for those of you who think NBA small forwards should be able to … shoot.

But this isn’t awful news, either.

At least not yet.

If Maurice Cheeks and his staff can persuade Smith to avoid chucking up long two-pointers and concentrate on attacking the rim, the Pistons will sport as athletic a frontline as there is in the league, capable of post offense, post defense, shot blocking and rebounding. Smith is a 6-foot-9 leaper with a quick first step and good vision. Whether cutting to the basket from the weak side or rolling to the lane off pick-and-rolls, the Pistons haven’t had a player like this in a long time.

Actually, few teams possess a player like Smith.

And that’s the issue.

His uniqueness tantalized coaches and fans for nine years in Atlanta but never quite satisfied them. A jump shot and a full-time motor make him a top-five player. But even without the shooting range, Smith can take over a game. That ability could push the Pistons into the playoffs.

Joe Dumars understands this, which is why he sought Smith the first minute free agency bidding opened last week. Teaming Smith on the frontline with Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe held too much possibility to pass up.

Dumars has to win. Smith and Andre Iguodala, another athletic small forward who defends, were his best options to help. Then Iguodala agreed to a deal with Golden State. That left Smith.

Is he a perfect fit?

Of course not.

Efficient offensive spacing will be a challenge because of Smith’s unreliable jumper. How he sees his role on a young team might also clog up plans — he once said he was a max-contract player; he is not, at least until he develops a consistent jumper, which isn’t likely to happen.

Then again, the Pistons were once a refuge for talented rogues, a place whose internal history and culture tamped down flaws and coaxed out hidden abilities. Sure, the reputation might have outlasted the fact. But it was true at one point, too.

It had to be. Because Dwight Howard was never going to come to Detroit. Neither was Chris Paul. Our city isn’t a destination for top NBA free agents. So Dumars has to take risks.

The question is, did he take too much of one on Smith?

Recent history said he did. The last time he offered up such money – Smith will get $54 million for four years – things didn’t go well. Incidentally, shedding the onerous contract of Ben Gordon is what allowed Dumars to offer the deal to Smith.

Yet I don’t think he is repeating the 2009 overpay to Gordon. Dumars has put together a nice, young core. He needs wing athletes who can defend to surround that core.

First-round pick Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and second-round pick Tony Mitchell were a start. And few players are more explosive than Smith.

His presence improves the Pistons defensively. Last season, relying on several advanced statistical formulas, Basketball Prospectus declared Smith the best perimeter defender in the league. He is certainly one of its most versatile.

Consider what he did in late April, when his Hawks lost the first two games of their first-round series against Indiana, largely because Atlanta couldn’t contain Paul George, an up-and-coming small forward.

Then Hawks coach Larry Drew moved Smith from power forward to small forward and told him to cover George. Atlanta won the next two games as Smith hounded the young star.

Yes, the Pacers eventually won the series – they had superior talent – but Smith showed what was still possible. He arrived in the NBA from high school with so much promise.

After nine years he gets a new start. Whether he takes advantage can change a legacy. Not just his.

 

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