It’s true that Detroit Pistons coach Maurice Cheeks and starting small forward Josh Smith may be “fine.” They may have a jovial, sound relationship. They probably say “hi” to each other in the hallway, they’re likely not barking at each other just 32 games into their relationship, and we may not hear a peep from those two in terms of one-on-one combat between now and the end of the season.
It is one thing to be “fine” personally, though, and another to be at odds professional. Smith has struggled quite a bit on both ends this season, his first with Detroit after signing a four-year, $54 million deal with the team last summer. Forced to play small forward in a big lineup, his numbers have tumbled across the board, he’s shooting a career-low 40 percent just four years after making half his shots in 2009-10, and the Pistons are a terrible defensive team when he’s on the floor.
This is part of the reason why Cheeks benched Smith for the second half of Saturday’s Detroit loss to Washington, the second such time this has happened in 2013-14. Smith told the media that he took “real offense” to having his work ethic and energy level criticized by Cheeks. Since then, the two have hashed it out and are on the same page.
According to Cheeks, at least. Because they didn’t even have a private conversation. From David Mayo at Michigan Live:
"We came to our agreement," Cheeks said today. "Y'all (media) are the only ones who got a problem with it because me and Josh are fine."
That’s solid enough, I suppose. When asked if he was on board with Smith’s comments that the benching he took “real offense” to was “unfair,” Cheeks didn’t exactly talk up a smoothed-out (smooved-out?) situation:
"That's his opinion," Cheeks said. "You know, I watch a lot of judge shows and they always talk about people's opinions, and that's his opinion. That's OK. I can't be in his brain and he's certainly entitled to his opinion. I'm entitled to mine."
Asked if he understood Smith's opinion, Cheeks assessed curtly.
"No -- that's my opinion," he said.
So, they haven’t talked individually, Cheeks doesn’t agree with what Smith said following the Washington benching, the Pistons have lost four of five and Josh still looks out of sorts while attempting to act as a small forward, still firing a career-high four three-pointers a game despite making just 25.8 percent of them. Still struggling defensively when Cheeks goes with the big starting lineup including power forward Greg Monroe and center Andre Drummond.
The Pistons scheduled a rare Sunday practice following back-to-back losses, but Smith seemed just fine with the run-through, calling it “beneficial” as the Pistons prepare to take on those same Wizards again on Monday night.
All the good cheer and sound practice habits in the world may not take away from one glaring issue that has Pistons fans worried and message boards lighting up with trade suggestions for forward Greg Monroe – Smith isn’t a good small forward in this system. He hasn’t been exactly lights out as a power forward this season either, but he’s played better on both ends at that spot. Two months and 32 games shouldn’t be enough time to call such a big Detroit triptych a failure, but the fact of the matter is that the Pistons are paying a lot of money for a 14-18 team that can’t even get to .500 thus far in the terrible Eastern Conference, and that’s with potential contract extensions for Monroe and eventually Drummond coming up in later years.
Until any shift, though, Smith will have to try to square peg it at small forward, something that barely worked in Atlanta and has decimated his squad’s chances of winning thus far in Detroit. Gauging Josh Smith’s effort levels and intensity is probably a fool’s errand, but the numbers certainly don’t like – it hasn’t worked out.
Yet. There’s still time to get fine.
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