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Pistons finding groove without Josh Smith

After a wretched 5-23 start, Stan Van Gundy couldn’t take it any longer. The Detroit Pistons head coach and president of basketball operations unexpectedly pulled the plug on Josh Smith, who still had two years, $26 million left on his contract after this season. Van Gundy had been searching for a trade partner to take on Smith for quite some time, but nothing materialized, so he just cut the enigmatic forward instead of riding things out.

Ever since the Pistons released Smith, they’ve begun to find a groove. Detroit is 5-0 both straight up and against the spread since Smith got the ax, with those five wins coming by an average of 18.2 points. Sure, the competition hasn’t exactly been the strongest, but the Pistons were losing to basically everybody earlier in the season. To not only be beating struggling teams, but destroying them, is a major step in the right direction.

Photo Credit: MLive.com

Photo Credit: MLive.com

Detroit has the best net rating in the NBA over the last five games, and the offense has taken off in the absence of Smith killing possessions with horrible shots and bad spacing. The Pistons have scored 113.7 points per 100 possessions in the last five contests, per NBA.com, which is the second-best offensive rating over that span. Compare that high number to the 97.6 points per 100 possessions scored in the first 28 games of the season with Smith, and you have a whale of a difference.

It’s not completely fair to pin all of Detroit’s prior woes on Smith, because the return of Jodie Meeks from an injury has helped juice up the offense. Meeks is shooting 47.7 percent from three-point land, which has been much-needed considering the Pistons were previously one of the worst three-point shooting teams in the league. In addition to Meeks’ three-point shooting, Brandon Jennings and Andre Drummond have stepped up their games of late.

Still, it’s hard to look past the fact that Detroit was much better with Smith off the court when he was still on the roster. The Pistons scored just 94.6 points per 100 possessions in Smith’s 896 minutes on the court, per NBA.com, and they scored 103.6 points per 100 possessions in Smith’s 463 minutes on the bench.

Taking this into account, along with the fact that Detroit has taken its game to a whole new level without Smith, and it’s tough to argue he wasn’t the major problem. The addition of improved three-point shooting has certainly helped, but one has to wonder whether players like Jennings and Drummond are performing better because Smith isn’t there to bring the whole thing down.

While the Pistons look great now, the rest of January will provide the true test to see if this success is sustainable. 10 of the last 15 games this month are against playoff teams, with the first coming on Tuesday against the San Antonio Spurs. If Detroit can survive this month, they could be taken seriously as a dark horse team to make the postseason in the Eastern Conference. Despite the 10-23 record, the Pistons are just four games behind the Miami Heat for the eighth spot in the East, so a playoff spot isn’t out of the realm of possibility.

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