The NBA, A-through-Z: Hung juries, and the Josh Smith saga

The free agents have just about all been signed up. The NBA is down to a series of Instagram photos from moving yachts and crossed fingers from worried teams hoping their players stay safe in the summer off. There’s nothing going on, save for that clock on the wall that is ticking down to the 2013-14 season.

And it’s moving SO SLOWLY.

This is why we’ve decided to pick 26 things we’re looking forward to in 2013-14. Or, at the very least, 26 things that intrigue us as we wait out an offseason that feels like it has thousands of miles left to cross before we can get to Halloween and opening week. Because there are 26 letters in the alphabet – you guessed, NBA A-through-Z.

We continue with hung juries, and the Josh Smith saga.

It’s the middle of summer, and everyone’s tied for first. Everyone’s tied for last, if we’re honest, and technically absolutely nobody is tied for anything because the 2013-14 NBA season doesn’t start until late October, but this is the sort of mindset teams have to strut with as they attempt to make something out of the upcoming campaign. Unless you’re the Philadelphia 76ers or Orlando Magic, I suppose, because tanking teams probably want to believe that they’re tied for the largest amount of lottery ping-pong balls.

In our discussions about the Atlanta Hawks (new coach!) and Brandon Jennings (new coach!) we talked up the idea of a change in both mindset and formation leading to an upturn in fortunes. Both of those outfits have had and will have a significant impact on new Detroit Pistons forward Josh Smith, one of the higher-priced free agent pickups of the summer, and one of the least-respected offseason acquisitions of the 2013 offseason.

That’s not a shot at Josh; it’s just a careful summation of the reaction to Smith’s four-year, $54 million deal. It was hard to find a consistent stream of cheerful reactions to Smith’s signing on Twitter or on the blogosphere, because by now most are more than aware of the things that Josh Smith doesn’t do. He doesn’t take smart shots, he goes long stretches without taking advantage of his world class-level athleticism, and he appears to have leveled off as a contributor in spite of working in the years prior to his ostensible prime.

So let’s give him $54 million and stick him at small forward alongside a bunch of other Pistons that can’t shoot. Bum move, right?

We’re not done yet. Hell, we haven’t even started yet. The same optimism that could turn Brandon Jennings into something special while working out of Scott Skiles’ (and assistant coach Jim Boylan’s) system, or the Hawks into something entertaining outside of Mike Woodson’s (and former assistant coach Larry Drew’s) system) could be in place for Smith. The man has started 654 out of the 676 games he’s played in his career for the Atlanta Hawks, stasis had set in, and there’s a reason both franchise and former franchise player didn’t want much to do with each other during Smith’s turn as a free agent. It was time for a change.

This doesn’t mean that Smith’s placement in Detroit is a sound move for either side, or that new Pistons coach Maurice Cheeks (who struggled to turn Darius Miles into a consistent contributor) is going to be the guy that turns it all around, but Smith’s story isn’t finished just yet.

This is a man who took only seven three-pointers in all of 2009-10, missing all of them, with at least (to these eyes) four of them coming in buzzer-beating, half-court situations. Smith took 201 last season, as he counted down the days until he could leave Atlanta, despite making just over 30 percent of his bombs. There’s a chance, even given that “small forward” designation, that somebody could get to the career 28 percent three-point shooter and convince him that, even in the modern NBA, a swingman can be successful even while eschewing the shot.

There are more warming signs, if you’ll allow my appalling optimism.

In 2011-12 Smith was one of the better defensive rebounders in the NBA. Also, over the last two seasons, his assisting percentages have spiked considerably – the man’s pick and roll action with Al Horford was a wonderful thing to watch, until Indiana shut it down in the playoffs in April, and that bodes well for a Pistons team that is desperate for any sort of creative playmaking touch. Piston forward Greg Monroe has his issues defensively, but the man is a master at thinking while facing the basket with or without the ball on offense, and he is quite adept at handling low passes. This could be a devastating duo.

Until, of course, defenses realize that the Pistons have absolutely no spacing to taunt opponents with, and that the goal of these two left-handed forwards is to start from the right and finish in the middle with the left. And that’s not even getting into (fellow lefty) Brandon Jennings’ issues with penetration and shot selection, and the current inability of Andre Drummond to do anything but dunk a lot, offensively.

In the right hands, with some sort of unholy amalgamation in place, this group could function as a unit. Smith, entering his tenth (!) season as a pro, could be the all-around force that pushes things over the top. That’s what small forwards do, grabbing influence from all positions above and below them.

Or, he could shoot a lot, force passes, and cash checks. He could embrace the tail-off that has typified his career to date, and look the same as he did while wearing a Hawks uniform.

It’s up to Josh Smith. As it’s always been.

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