‘A Perfect Piston’

Billups, seeing Smith’s fire, helping to mold him into a Pistons leader

Josh Smith
Josh Smith is developing into a role as a Pistons leader.
Dan Lippitt (NBAE/Getty)
They might have named the NBA’s annual award for sportsmanship the Joe Dumars Trophy, but that doesn’t mean its namesake doesn’t understand that in creating a championship stew a few spicy ingredients are as necessary as the meat and potatoes.

When Joe D surveyed the landscape last summer, armed with $20 million in cap space, his first objective was to upgrade his roster’s talent level. But another consideration, as he gauged what else a roster filled with recent draft choices worthy of Boy Scout badges could use, was bringing in someone who’d know how to survive in the woods if the handbook got lost.

“This guy’s got an edge now,” Dumars said in July after signing Josh Smith. “And so, Boy Scout he is not. And I think that’s exactly what this team needs right now.”

It didn’t hurt Dumars’ confidence that Smith’s often palpable emotion would become channeled in the right direction when within days of agreeing to terms with Smith he also struck a deal with Chauncey Billups.

And together they are rapidly becoming an important force in shaping the identity of a team many in the NBA are warily monitoring, despite their 2-5 start in the face of a difficult slate of opponents that’s already included four legitimate NBA title contenders.

“I think they’re coming together like a monster,” Indiana coach Frank Vogel told me before a game last week at The Palace. “They’re one of the few teams that can match our size and, in some ways, exceed our size. They’ve got a whole new identity. Not just having Josh playing the three, but with (Andre) Drummond’s development – he’s just a monster out there – I like their new look.”

Billups looks at Smith and sees fire. He calls him “the perfect Piston” in that regard. “He’s got a lot of grittiness to him. I’m teaching him and talking to him about different ways to lead and that’s a process. This is his 10th year, but he came into the league very young. He still has a lot to learn when it comes to leading and knowing how to lead different guys in different ways. Right now he just knows one way.”

Let’s deconstruct that for a moment. Mr. Big Shot sees in Smith a guy who inarguably places winning above all else, and once you have that, you can work with anything that comes along with it. Thus, the perfect Piston. Leadership requires nuance and subtlety as often as it requires force and unambiguity, though, and it’s an art Billups has utterly mastered. That he’s investing the time to pay it forward to Smith underscores his faith in Smith’s intent.

Dumars drew some parallels between Smith joining these Pistons and Rasheed Wallace coming to the team nine years earlier – a multitalented player with an emotional bent, unafraid to put himself on the line and invite the backlash that usually comes with such behavior.

“I think Sheed was a little farther along, as far as in the way he led,” Billups said. “Sheed was a leader for us, very vocal, always positive. Positivity is the key when you’re leading. I think Sheed, personality wise, gritty wise, on the court competitor wise, basketball IQ wise – they’re both really, really smart players – but Sheed was probably farther along when he came here from those other perspectives.”

Smith’s sincerity at how eagerly he’s embraced the opportunity for a fresh start in Detroit after nine years in Atlanta, and his appreciation for the faith Dumars showed in him by offering a healthy four-year contract at the stroke of midnight on July 1 when free-agent contact could first be made, oozes from him, as surely as he expresses his exhilaration at a triumphant moment or his displeasure at a less satisfactory result.

“I take this game very seriously,” he said. “I’m a competitor. I hate to lose. I like to step up to the challenge. Some might say I wear my heart on my sleeve or my emotions – and I do. I’m an emotional player. I’m passionate about winning basketball games and I know the importance of each and every game. When I step out on this floor for practice and especially for game days, I lock in as soon as I get out on the court.”

Smith went into Tuesday’s game at Golden State a close second to Greg Monroe in scoring at 17.5 points a game while also doing what he usually does to register numbers across the statistical spectrum. But he played just 19 minutes in the Pistons’ first real clunker of the season, an 18-point loss in which they trailed by 19 in the first quarter. Maurice Cheeks sat both Smith and Chauncey Billups when he sent the Pistons back out to start Tuesday’s second half.

Cheeks adamantly said he was just looking for a spark from different lineups and Smith defused questions soliciting his view of the move in the postgame locker room.

“Just got to cheer my teammates on,” he said. “I can’t really focus on decisions that people make higher than you. You just have to be able to adjust around it. And as long as I’ve been in this league, that’s what I’ve been willing to do, just learning how to adjust.”

Before Tuesday’s game, Cheeks extolled the addition of Smith when asked what his signing meant for the Pistons.

“Josh helps our franchise,” he said. “He’s one of the few guys in the league that can fill up a stat sheet – rebounding, passing, scoring, stealing balls. He’s one of the few guys that can bring different elements to the game and can change a game, not only scoring but defensively, as well.”

Smith talked from the early days of training camp about the importance of establishing chemistry to enable the Pistons to get off to a good start, important in a more competitive Eastern Conference for postseason considerations. He knew that meant spending time together away from the court as much as learning strengths and preferences on it, and he’s taken an active role toward that end, too.

“We get along with each other,” he said. “I’m not just saying that just to say it. We hang out with each other outside of basketball. That’s how you create chemistry – getting to know the person and not the player. That’s what we’ve been doing, just joking, laughing, having with each other but also trying to figure out what each other likes to do on the court.”

Cheeks was fully on board with the pursuit of Smith in free agency, grasping immediately how Smith would blend ideally with his preferred style of play – forcing turnovers to facilitate scoring chances before opposing defenses have the opportunity to set up. He’s also come to appreciate what Dumars sensed about Smith’s personality also blending ideally with the earnest demeanors of young franchise cornerstones like Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe.

“To be where Josh’s numbers are for nine years, you have to have some competitive spirit in you and Josh definitely has it,” Cheeks said. “He displays it more in the game when in the heat of the battle and I think some guys pick up on it and thrive off of that. He has that attitude and gets under people’s skin and certain guys thrive off of that. I wouldn’t have known that and I’ve picked up on it since I’ve gotten here. Your team needs that sometimes – a guy on your team that can push your guys a little further – and I think he’s that guy.”

It was a role some of the most beloved Pistons of all time have filled, from Rick Mahorn and Bill Laimbeer with the Bad Boys to Rasheed Wallace with the Goin’ to Work Pistons. Perfect Pistons, all of them.