When the Pistons win, it usually means Johnson & Smith put in plenty of good work

Stanley Johnson and Ish Smith have had their fingerprints all over Pistons wins so far this season
Chris Schwegler (NBAE/Getty)
by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

DETROIT – Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond might affect winning more than any other set of Pistons teammates, but the pair that’s been the best barometer for Pistons wins?

Stanley Johnson and Ish Smith.

The identity Dwane Casey hoped to establish with his second unit has come into focus. And at the center of it are Johnson and Smith.

When Johnson and Smith are good – and they’ve been good more often than not, and really good increasingly often – so are the Pistons. The most recent evidence was turned in during Tuesday’s win over the Knicks. Johnson scored 21 points on only nine shot attempts to go with four rebounds, two assists a steal and three blocked shots – including a spectacular chase-down swat at the rim to seal the win. Smith put up nine points and seven assists against two turnovers in 21 high-impact minutes.

When they play like that, the Pistons are probably headed for a win. That’s what the numbers say – indisputably.

The Pistons, 11-7, almost always get positive outings from Johnson and Smith in wins. Johnson’s offensive rating in wins is a whopping 40 points higher than in Pistons losses, 117 to 77. Smith’s isn’t quite as dramatic – 115 in wins, 89 in losses – but it’s the next biggest gap among rotation players by a considerable margin.

In wins, Johnson averaged 11.5 points to 6.7 in losses and shoots 40 percent from the 3-point arc compared to 21 percent in losses. Smith averages 11 points in wins, 7.9 in losses and shoots 41 percent from three as opposed to 23 percent in losses. For comparison’s sake, Griffin averages 26.0 in wins, 23.6 in losses; Drummond gives the Pistons 18.4 points and 16.3 rebounds in wins, 19.3 and 15.6 in losses. Guys like Reggie Bullock and Langston Galloway are comparative metronomes. Their shots might come and go, but their aren’t wild swings in productivity in wins and losses.

No, it’s Johnson and Smith who are the best indicators of what kind of night the Pistons are having through the first quarter of the season.

“We’ve been bad,” in losses, Smith acknowledges with a shake of the head. “And so that’s the key of taking that next step. Being really good is being consistent every night. For me, even from the first half to the second half (of games), being consistent. I’ve been tough on myself because I know it’s early but I do know that’s key for our team to win.”

Casey moved Johnson out of the starting lineup after a Nov. 3 loss at Philadelphia pushed the Pistons’ losing streak to four games. They’ve gone 7-3 since with Johnson
averaging 11.2 points and shooting .375 from the 3-point arc.

“He’s been great for that unit,” Griffin said after scoring 30 to beat the Knicks. “I think having a little bit more space, a little more freedom with that unit, but I think defensively he’s been great. He’s taken the challenge of guarding guys, (James) Harden, Kawhi (Leonard), guys like that.”

Even though Johnson has shot the ball much better since moving to the bench, the sense is that not being relegated to standing in the corner for the threat of a 3-point shot when paired with Griffin and Drummond has unlocked Johnson’s offense. With the second unit – alongside the pace-pushing Smith – Johnson has become a force in transition, as well. His end-to-end forays are the closest thing the East has to LeBron James’ dynamic one-man breaks.

“We were both in there,” Drummond said. “Now he’s able to play a little bit more free. When he was playing with us he had to figure out how am I going to get to my spots because the lanes are so clogged up due to Blake and myself being in the paint so much. Coming off the bench, he’s able to take the ball and just go, just run, just play his game. It’s fun to watch him play now.”

Getting Johnson on the second unit helps Smith, too, for the stability it lends to the bench. The other key components have been Zaza Pachulia and Langston Galloway.

“Stan’s been good ever since Coach made the move,” Smith said. “I know he probably wasn’t happy about it, but I remember when the move was made he said, ‘Ish, let’s roll. Let’s run.’ When he’s able to play with freedom, play with pace and be confident and just play his game, that’s when he’s at his best. He’s been huge. We need that production from him for the rest of the season.”

“The way he embraced that is huge, especially for a guy his age,” Griffin said. “I’ve seen a lot of guys not handle it that professionally. I think it says a lot about him.”

Pachulia, a stabilizing force for his intelligence and wisdom gleaned over a 16-year career, credits Smith’s infectious personality for helping give not just the Pistons bench but the team a positive energy.

“You can tell he has a good heart,” he said. “I would say Ish is the guy who brings the joy to the team, always smiling, no matter what. He had a bad game or he’s hurting or he’s tired, he always has a smile on his face and that means a lot. It sets the tone, especially coming from a veteran guy. They follow his presence and his footsteps. It’s amazing. It’s great to have that kind of character guy and helps us to enjoy because it’s a long season. You need the kind of veteran who brings positive energy.”

Galloway’s consistency and toughness play well in that unit – “Langston’s been huge – we know he can shoot and create for other guys but his defense has probably surprised a lot of people,” Smith said – and the Pistons expect another boost with Luke Kennard’s return from an October shoulder separation inching closer.

“That’s the crazy thing,” Smith said. “We’re (18) games in and we’ve still got so much to get better at. Still got guys out. Jon (Leuer) is still getting in the flow of things. Luke is out. We still have another level. It was different last year. Last year around this time, we felt we were playing our best basketball. Right now, there’s another level for us to get to.”

The way things are going, getting there will almost certainly be spurred by guys like Stanley Johnson and Ish Smith doing every night what they’ve done in the 11 Pistons wins so far under their belts.