The Pistons (11-23) now have more wins without Smith than they claimed in 28 games with him, a surprising run that can’t simply be dismissed as coincidence nor strictly credited to the removal of one player.
Settling on one side ignores how the Pistons woefully underachieved with an offense that was inexplicably built around an inefficient player and doesn’t take into account the arrival of Jodie Meeks from a back injury, nor that Jennings is suddenly hitting the same insane shots he missed when Smith was around. They all need to be bundled to fully appreciate the most unlikely win streak of the season, which has the Pistons sitting 3 1/2 games behind eighth place Miami in the Eastern Conference after starting the season 5-23.
Stan Van Gundy opened himself up for criticism with a horrific start and his questionable decision to purge Smith while still paying him the more than $30 million he’s owed through 2019. But Coach Van Gundy has made the best of Executive Van Gundy’s move by finally incorporating the inside-out style of play that brought him success in Orlando.
Teams have benefited from addition by subtraction before; Toronto’s ascent in the Eastern Conference began by dealing away Rudy Gay in December 2013. But Detroit didn’t just subtract Smith, it eliminated a scheme that made little sense. Van Gundy was either showcasing Smith in an attempt to raise his trade value or involving him more to decrease his chances of manic freestyling. But trying to make Smith happen held back the other elements of the team that are now starting to shine.
Without Smith around to hog the action, the Pistons have the look of a completely different team. They are moving the ball, getting better looks and knocking down more three-pointers. They have connected on 39.9 percent from long distance in the past six games – up from 33 percent in the first 28 – but that has more to do with having actual shooters (like Meeks) around.
Meeks signed a three-year, $19 million deal with Detroit to start free agency but didn’t make his debut until December after suffering a stress reaction in his lower back in the preseason. The Pistons are 8-4 with Meeks in the lineup – yes, that includes two wins with Smith – and he has averaged 17 points and shot 58.6 percent from three-point range during the streak.
Jennings has more freedom to make plays and he has responded by averaging 20.2 points while connecting on 50.5 percent from the floor (48 of 95) and 45 percent from long distance. But Jennings’ streak might have more to do with being hot since the career 39 percent shooter was also off-target when Smith wasn’t on the court early in the season.
Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond have more room to operate now that the Pistons can surround them with long-distance threats instead of players teams dared to shoot, and Monroe and Drummond have been collecting double-doubles in an offense that is now producing 112.3 points per 100 possessions (it produced 97.6 points per 100 possessions in the previous 28 games).
The competition hasn’t exactly been stout. Detroit racked up five double-digit wins by an average margin of 18.2 points against Indiana, Cleveland, Orlando, New York and Sacramento – teams with a combined record of 65-114.
The Spurs have lost eight of 12 without Kawhi Leonard, only had the services of Tony Parker for one half and are looking more vulnerable in the highly competitive Western Conference. But the win over San Antonio offered more hope that the Pistons might be able to sustain some success for the remainder of the season given how they overcame an 18-point deficit and a poor shooting night from Jennings.
The Pistons will eventually lose, teams will adjust to the more wide-open offense and some individual performances will regress to the mean, but at least Van Gundy has given his team an identity, something that was amiss while force-feeding the ill-fit Smith.
Waiters a necessary risk for Oklahoma City
The Oklahoma City Thunder did not find a replacement for James Harden when it plucked Dion Waiters from Cleveland in a three-team trade this week. A talent like Harden – who made first team all-NBA before Russell Westbrook and could follow Kevin Durant as the league’s next most valuable player – doesn’t come around very often and the Thunder has had to learn the hard way after trading Harden in a rare trade that didn’t turn out in favor of General Manager Sam Presti.
But the Thunder won’t need Waiters to be Harden to make a return to the NBA Finals. Waiters just has to give Oklahoma City another reliable scoring option so the team doesn’t always have to rely so heavily on Durant and Westbrook.
Oklahoma City’s extended period without its two all-stars this season wasn’t pretty and with Durant and Westbrook back, the team continues to struggle without a heroic performance from one or both. So the Thunder took a gamble on Waiters, the fourth pick of the 2012 draft, for the price of Lance Thomas and a first-round pick.
The trade was the kind of opportunistic deal that Presti used to build the Thunder into a Western Conference power. Presti fit Waiters into a $4.1 million trade exception that the team acquired from Atlanta in a deal involving Thabo Sefolosha.
Waiters gives the Thunder some insurance should Reggie Jackson get a massive contract offer as a restricted free agent this summer but could create some possible chemistry problems within a second unit that has shoot-first playmakers in Jackson and Jeremy Lamb.
Waiters’s inflated opinion of his talents caused him to clash with Kyrie Irving and kept him from buying into a role alongside LeBron James. But the possible reward was worth the risk for the Thunder, which doesn’t make significant roster upgrades through free agency and was not going to get the opportunity to select another top-four talent after choosing three franchise players in successive drafts from 2007-09 in Durant, Westbrook and Harden.
What Oklahoma City has is an established culture and talent hierarchy that Waiters has to respect. The problem in Cleveland is that while some things lined up on paper, so much remained unsettled on the court and left him room to believe he deserved more.
The hard work actually begins for Phil Jackson
Ten months into taking over the New York Knicks, Phil Jackson has made two trades ensuring that this season will be all about losing and entering free agency with two building blocks in Carmelo Anthony and an extremely high draft pick.
The failed Tyson Chandler deal from last June made the Knicks demonstrably worse and the salary cap slashing moves than punted J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert and Sam Dalembert from the roster accelerated their tanking endeavors and put the organization in an intense battle with Philadelphia and Minnesota for the league’s worst record.
If the Knicks can honor the 30th anniversary of the alleged frozen envelope that resulted in winning the Patrick Ewing lottery and once again claim the top overall pick, New York would be able to get Duke center Jahlil Okafor or point guard Emmanuel Mudiay, who skipped college to play in China. But for Jackson, the hard work comes after making that choice.
With roughly $30 million to spend on free agents, Jackson will have to earn his $60 million by attracting a big name to New York. Four years ago, the Knicks were in a similar position but could only convince Amare Stoudemire, a player on knees that couldn’t be insured, to come to town. Anthony forced a deal from Denver a few months later but five years later the franchise has just one 50-win season and one playoff series win to show for those moves.
The risk with cap space is that Miami is only team in recent memory that built a contender by collecting free agents and it was only able to do so after LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh started plotting a merger several years in advance. Marc Gasol and LaMarcus Aldridge headline this free agent class but are in better situations with current teams that have no intention of losing them. Rajon Rondo was an option before Boston sent him to Dallas and made the Mavericks, with owner Mark Cuban, the front runner to sign him.
Jackson already failed in his first recruiting effort with the Knicks, with Steve Kerr spurning his former coach to go to Golden State. With so much on the line for the franchise the next two summers – Kevin Durant headlines the 2016 class – Jackson can’t afford to stumble with no apparent backup plan to get better around Anthony.