The Ish Smith Problem.

Reggie Jackson has been cleared for light activities which put him (hopefully) a week or two away from a return. How important is his return though? The biggest improvement will be that he will not, in fact, be Ish Smith. Here’s why that is so important.

To start off with I want to make something clear: Ish Smith is a really good backup. He takes great care of the ball, creates tons of transition opportunities, plays with ferocious effort on defense, and can go through stretches of highly effective scoring. The problem comes in the half-court offense which is magnified as a starter. Starters are much more diligent and just plain better at getting back consistently and not allowing opponents to get out and run, which is a huge detriment to Smith’s game.

To start, let’s have a look at Smith’s shot chart for the season, per Synergy Sports.

Those shot charts say a lot about Smith’s limitations as a player. He is a total non-threat beyond the three-point line, isn’t an effective mid-range shooter, and struggles in the floater areas in the paint but not to the hoop. The one area where he is pretty effective is all the way at the hoop, but even that comes with a caveat. Due to his diminutive size, there are a lot of looks at the hoop that he just doesn’t even attempt because he knows he has no shot which is why he draws so few fouls. He doesn’t go up for layups very often unless it is a pretty clear look, he is a bad finisher in traffic.
That shot chart is how you get to be one of the most inefficient scorers in the entire NBA. This season he is actually having a (by far) career season in scoring efficiency with a true shooting percentage of 50.5%, up from his previous career best (last season) of 47.7%. Even with his current career-best mark, when you look at actual rotation players the only guys down by him mostly fall into three types (with some exceptions).

Defensive specialists like Marcus Smart or Matthew Dellevedova, young guys that suck right now but will probably get better like Dennis Smith Jr, or old guys who are probably on their way out of the league like Jarrett Jack and Arron Afflalo. Smith is none of those. That isn’t an indicator that he is a useless player, he does enough unique stuff to be good, but it mostly highlights just how much of a gaping hole that is in his game and how much of a pain it is to play around it in the half-court.

How is it such a pain? He can pass, and he hits shots occasionally.
He often totally neuters pick and rolls because teams are so totally unafraid of his jump shot. Remember how the Pistons now have two of the best pick and roll big men in the NBA on their roster? Watch what happens here:

Now that particular play ends up working out courtesy of my beloved son Reggie Bullock shooting over the perpetually disengaged Lou Williams. But look at that pick and roll attempt! Both bigs take big steps back to the free throw line, meanwhile, Avery Bradley swaps back and forth underneath Blake Griffin’s pick so far that even the speedy Smith has no chance to rocket past.

On this play, they run the pick and roll closer to the hoop so that it is more in Smith’s range, and still the defense ducks so far under the screen that there is no chance for any penetration. That is within Smith’s range so they are taking a risk, but unless he hits those shots it completely destroys any chance of generating anything else out of a pick and roll with him.

The good news is that occasionally defenses can mess up or be forced to change their strategy, at which point Smith can become useful as a ball handler.
In that second scenario, where they run a lower pick and roll but still go under, after Smith hits a few of those shots it forced the defense to actually defend it and then you can unlock him.

That is pretty self-explanatory. The defense goes over the screen which puts Smith and Drummond going to the hoop with just one guy to stop them which is the best outcome for the Pistons.

You can also achieve this by the defense occasionally just screwing up and forgetting to sag way off.

On that play, the Clippers decide to actually come out and guard Smith beyond the three-point line for some reason. Even though Bradley tries to go under, he doesn’t go far enough to get totally clear, and Smith is able to rocket right past DeAndre Jordan.

Even though it has happened less and less as teams have gotten more aware of just how limited Smith is, it is a good reminder of how Smith does not need a lot of space to use his track-star speed to make things work. That is another good reminder of how much better he is as a backup than a starter. Starters don’t make those sorts of mistakes very often defensively, even on bad teams, bench mobs are much more likely to do so.

With the ball in his hands, he can be a huge drag on the offense, but it is possible to find little ways to get him going in that regard. Where he truly torpedoes the offense is when he operates off the ball, which is especially problematic since the arrival of the ball-dominant Blake Griffin.

Just watch Ish Smith in that clip. The Clippers literally don’t guard him. The only time any defenders react to him is Gallinari giving a token arm out to hold him in place.

Look at those. Here the ball ends up finding Smith both times after his man totally abandons him, and the defense is able to give such a huge cushion that he isn’t able to take big guys off the dribble. When it is Anthony Davis that’s one thing, but I don’t need to tell Pistons fans that Ersan Ilyasova is not exactly mobile.

This is what it looks like to play four on five. This is a total step beyond, so for instance, in that second clip the defense sags off Stanley Johnson on the perimeter, but notice that they actually react to his cut and the defender is keeping an active eye on him. He is not providing spacing, but the defense has not totally ignored him. Smith, on the other hand, is totally ignored until he has the ball in his hands.

So the offense is always awful with Smith on the floor?
No, it isn’t actually which is part of the funny thing here. Despite some of the theoretically awful offensive lineups the Pistons have used at times, they still have been really good offensively since the Griffin trade. Over the last eight games, the Pistons score 109.5 points per 100 possessions with Smith on the floor.

The thing is, that efficiency is largely boosted by lineups where he is essentially playing with the bench. The Pistons starting lineup has an offensive efficiency of just 102.5 points per 100 possessions. Here is the other thing in those numbers that are concerning long-term, Ish Smith is boasting a true shooting percentage of 58.5% over that same stretch, over ten points above his career average. If he falls back even to his current season average of 50.5% the offense will take a serious fall with it.
The good news is that he doesn’t have to be long-term. Reggie Jackson has begun some light running and will hopefully be back within a couple of weeks. So even if this is just a hot shooting streak for Smith, if he can just manage to stretch it out for a couple more weeks then it is all fine.
Once Jackson returns it will help immensely since people actually guard him. He isn’t a great shooter but he’s a solid spot-up guy, and teams don’t ignore him out of the pick and roll. So even though Reggie Jackson is not some going to bring a huge amount of spacing to the offense, the Pistons are currently sitting at such a comical low with Ish Smith that Jackson will be huge by default. Which doesn’t even get into how important Jackson’s brilliance in the pick and roll will be.

(Featured Image: Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)


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