The Detroit Pistons shocked the NBA world in late December by announcing they were cutting Josh Smith, their highest-paid player.
Detroit signed Smith to a four-year, $US54 million deal in 2013, hoping he could form an All-Star trio with their other big men, Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond.
After getting off to a 5-23 start, the Pistons were so desperate to get rid of Smith that they cut him, even though they’d still have the pay the remaining $US26 million on his contract.
The Pistons lessened the blow by using the “stretch provision,” which extends the remainder of Smith’s contract over five years, making the Pistons pay about $US5.4 million each season instead of $US26 million at once.
Regardless of the payment plan, cutting a highly paid player who wasn’t injured or in some sort of legal trouble was unprecedented. Many took it as a sign that new coach Stan Van Gundy wanted to jump-start the rebuilding process.
Since the move, the Pistons have been on fire. They’re 6-0. They have won more games in the two weeks since cutting Smith than they did in the first two moths of the season.
Tuesday night they pulled off an 18-point comeback against the San Antonio Spurs, capped off by a game-winning floater from Brandon Jennings.
The entire Pistons team seems rejuvenated.
Prior to cutting Smith, the Pistons ranked 28th in the NBA in offensive rating, scoring 97.6 points per 100 possessions, and 24th in defensive rating, giving up 105.8 points per 100 possessions.
In the six games since cutting Smith, the Pistons are 3rd in the NBA in offensive rating, scoring 112.3 points per 100 possessions, and 2nd in defensive rating, giving up only 94.1 points per 100 possessions.
In total net rating, that’s a 26-point swing.
Jennings has been on a hot streak, posting averages of 20 points, 47.8% shooting from the field, and 5.8 assists per game. Prior to cutting Smith, Jennings was shooting 36.8% from the field.
Part of Jennings’ breakout has been an increase in spacing. When they played together, he and Smith had a -9.3 net rating, mainly because neither player is a respectable threat from the three-point line. Without Smith, the Pistons are playing more “stretch four” players like Jonas Jerebko and Anthony Tolliver and spacing out their offence.
The Pistons’ frontcourt has improved as well. When Smith was on the court with either Monroe or Drummond, both duos had negative net ratings. When all three were together on the court, they had a -3.3 net rating. However, Monroe and Drummond together have a +4.7 net rating, proving Smith just wasn’t a good fit with either player.
Some of this isn’t Smith’s fault, as Tim Cato of SB Nation argues. The Pistons were steadily improving on offence leading up to Smith’s departure, and they have gotten a huge boost from their biggest offseason signing, Jodie Meeks, as he’s returned to health. Since Meeks’ return on December 12, the Pistons are ninth in the NBA in offensive rating, meaning the spacing he provides was already having an effect on the offence.
The Pistons have also had a weaker schedule. Wins over the Cavaliers and Spurs were impressive, but their other four victories were over the Pacers, Magic, Knicks, and Kings, so they haven’t faced many world-beaters.
Good health and a lighter schedule have benefitted Detroit, but there’s no doubting the Pistons seem to have made an addition-by-subtraction move by cutting Smith.
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