coach Maurice Cheeks benched Josh Smith
during the second half of Detroit's 106-82 loss to Washington on Saturday. (Allen Einstein/NBAE via Getty Images)
When the Pistons agreed to sign Josh Smith to a four-year, $54 million contract back in July, they acknowledged and accepted the complications therein. Detroit wasn't just signing Smith at a lofty price, but doing so with the understanding that he would likely be nudged out of position. There was no perfect fit for Smith in a rotation that already featured Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe -- two young, conventional bigs -- in the frontcourt, leaving him to make do by starting on the wing. Such placement naturally moved Smith away from the areas of the floor in which he's been most effective, and has thus far been a basic cause for his career-worst shooting percentages and career-high number of ill-fated three-point attempts.
The latest complication of Smith's signing, though, is a bit more abstract; by acquiring him to play outside of his natural position, the Pistons have essentially put Smith and head coach Maurice Cheeks at odds by default. Even under the best possible circumstances, the combination of Smith, Monroe and Drummond would require the careful control of minutes and team strategy. It was almost inevitable that one among the three would feel like the odd man out at some point, and given the personalities and roles involved, Smith seemed as safe a bet as any.
Their relationship came to a simmer on Saturday, when Detroit's woeful first half against Washington -- in which the Pistons were outscored 62-41 -- brought Cheeks to bench Smith the rest of the way. Smith took exception to a punishment he didn't feel he deserved, per David Mayo of MLive.com:
"… when you hit adverse times, characters are gonna be tested," Smith said. "It's either that we're gonna come closer together and make it all one team, or are you gonna use a scapegoat to get away from what's really at hand?"
... What rankled Smith most was what he perceived as Cheeks questioning his effort.
"It's an honor for me to play, you know what I'm saying? So when anybody challenges -- or anything about the fact that, you know, about me not wanting to play -- then I take real offense to it," Smith said.
While player and coach seemed to agree on the former point ("The game wasn't about Josh Smith," Cheeks said), the latter seems a bit more contentious. In one breath, Cheeks did his best to paint the entire episode as some sort of media delusion, but in a follow-up response he made it known that he and Smith still fundamentally disagree on the issue that led to the struggling forward's benching:
"We came to our agreement," Cheeks said today. "Y'all (media) are the only ones who got a problem with it because me and Josh are fine."
That doesn't mean the coach agreed with Smith, the Pistons' highest-paid player, who said his second-half benching in a 106-82 blowout was "unfair" and that he took "real offense" to what he perceived as Cheeks challenging him for not playing hard.
"That's his opinion," Cheeks said. "You know, I watch a lot of judge shows and they always talk about people's opinions, and that's his opinion. That's OK. I can't be in his brain and he's certainly entitled to his opinion. I'm entitled to mine."
Asked if he understood Smith's opinion, Cheeks assessed curtly.
"No -- that's my opinion," he said.
Doesn't that exchange ring with the harmony of a stable, positive relationship? There's no tension between Cheeks and Smith at all, apparently, save for the very basis of the incident that caused Smith to verbalize his frustrations in the first place. Other than that core issue central to the disagreement at hand, the relationship between the two men is just peachy.
Cheeks' attempt to sweep the argument under the rug is basic media relations; it's easy to understand why he and the Pistons would want to downplay the incident as much as possible, and for a moment he seems to. But that Cheeks subsequently reinforces the source of his divide with Smith is an odd play under the circumstances. It wouldn't have been hard for Cheeks to at least admit that he understands why Smith is frustrated -- a position that's both dismissive of the situation and empathetic toward his player's standing. Instead, Cheeks made it clear that he and Smith have entirely conflicting opinions on the matter, to the point of summoning Judge Judy/Judge Joe Brown/Judge Mathis-style imagery of their differing viewpoints. Player and coach may not be at each other's throats, but a courtroom depiction of their differences in opinion doesn't exactly speak to accord.
This blip on the NBA radar will pass in time, though, and what matters most is what both Cheeks and Smith make of it. Smith has already noted that he isn't one to hold grudges, which bodes well for his relationship with his coach and the Pistons organization. Yet the sources of tension between the two parties remain; Smith is still a weird fit at small forward, set to continue one of the worst seasons of his career; Detroit on the whole is not a very good team, even in the context of a terrible conference; and Smith, overall, isn't likely to shake the kinds of habits that tend to irk coaches. Grudge or not, theirs is a relationship worth watching.