The Detroit Pistons went to Dallas and beat the hell out of the Mavericks last night, 108-95, for their seventh consecutive victory. They're 7-0 since waiving Josh Smith on Dec. 22; they were 5-23 before that. Maybe they are good, now!
The temptation is to take this as confirmation of the simmering "Josh Smith is a cancer" narrative—the Rockets, his new team, hit a rough patch pretty much as soon as they started giving him minutes—but there's probably a much simpler explanation. Actually, to hell with "probably": Playing a power forward who can't shoot for shit at a perimeter position was always, always, always always always stupid and misbegotten and doomed to fail, and it failed, and now the Pistons aren't doing it anymore, and so it's no surprise that they're playing better.
The five-man units that clogged the floor with Andre Drummond, Greg Monroe, and Smith have been replaced by five-man units that space it out nicely with dudes like Kyle Singler, Jodie Meeks, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and D.J. Augustin. None of those guys is remotely as good as Josh Smith by some abstract notion of individual basketball excellence; each makes much better sense in a five-man unit with Drummond, Monroe, and Brandon Jennings. A horse makes better sense than Josh Smith in a five-man unit with Drummond, Monroe, and Jennings. (At least a horse won't crank up a bunch of ill-advised threes.)
Pinning down the exact proportions of personnel complementarity, coaching, interpersonal chemistry, and favorable scheduling that have restored the Pistons to competitiveness is impossible, and useless, and anyway they'll start losing games again someday soon. What matters is, they're a better team and a better show right now than they have been in a long time. Drummond in particular—who was such an awe- and terror-inspiring young Thunder God before the Smith signing, and who played most of the past season-plus with the glazed expression of a young kid trying to tune out the sounds of his parents' drunken screaming match—is back to doing shit like this, now that there's room on the floor for him to do it:
Look at Chandler Parsons there. He makes a bad play, sure, scrambling indecisively between the paint and his man—but the reason he makes that bad play is that his man, Caron Butler, is a threat from the corner. Maybe Butler's not exactly Kyle Korver over there, but he's enough of a threat to keep Parsons close to home, wary of that John Wall-style whip pass to the opposite corner for three. If it's Josh Smith, career 27-percent three-point shooter, over there, Parsons digs down into the lane, cuts off Drummond's roll to the hoop, and sends Drummond to the line to miss two free throws.
The difference between the Pistons before and the Pistons now isn't that they got rid of a cancer. It's that they got rid of a lousy shooter who had to play out of position and never made sense on their team. That's difference enough. They needed space, and now they've got it, and now they can play.