What if I told you that Josh Smith had all of the physical talents to be Draymond Green?
When NBA fans think of the career of Josh Smith, they think of a losing basketball player. They think of a guy who would take ill-advised shots and not play with great effort on a consistent basis. He was one of the faces of an Atlanta Hawks team that never made it past the second round of the playoffs. After his nine years in Atlanta, he was known as the guy who signed a four-year, $54 million contract with the Detroit Pistons and then was waived half way through his second season with the team.
When NBA fans think of Draymond Green, yes they may think of a guy who is a loudmouth and likes to kick people. However, NBA fans will mainly know Green as one of the best defenders in the league and the glue that holds together one of the best teams in NBA history.
When you consider the narratives that surround Smith and Green, you would never think that they could be comparable to one another. But when you look deeper into every aspect of Smith’s and Green’s games, you will find that they are more similar than you would think. We will break down the two players’ skills from both ends of the floor in addition to their intangible qualities. We start with Green’s forte:
Green’s defensive value for the Warriors comes from his ability to guard every position. This allows the Warriors to feel comfortable switching on pick and rolls, which for most teams would normally put them out of rotation. Here is an example where Draymond switches onto James Harden:
And Green guarding Marc Gasol:
Green’s 6‘7, 230-pound frame gives him the size to deal with bigger players, along with the great length to contest shots and get into passing lanes. He also has excellent quickness for a man his size, which allows him to hang with guards on the perimeter.
Now when you look at the body frame of Smith, it makes you think that he should have the same defensive abilities as Green. Smith stood at 6‘9, weighing 225 pounds while possessing elite athleticism that allowed him to dunk like this:
There were times in his career when he showed the ability to guard every position on the floor. Here is an example where he is guarding Kobe Bryant in the pick and roll:
He does an excellent job using his quickness to stay in front of Kobe and then he has the length and athleticism to block the fall-away jumper. Keep in mind this was the 2012 Kobe that was scoring 27 points per game on 46% shooting. Now here is a clip of Smith guarding Dirk Nowitzki in the post:
Smith stonewalls Dirk, not allowing him to get closer to basket, which forces Dirk to take a tough fadeaway. Smith’s length impacts the shot to the point where the ball goes off the top of the backboard.
In addition to his versatility, Smith showed the ability to block shots and rack up steals. In his career, he averaged 1.2 steals and 1.9 blocks per game and he had a few seasons in Atlanta where he averaged nearly three blocks per game. However, all of this added up to only one second-team All-Defense honor in 2009-10. This obviously doesn’t hold a candle to what Green has done so far in his career with three first-team All-Defense appearances and a defensive player of the year trophy this past season.
So what got in the way of Smith being one of the best defenders in basketball? One of the biggest reasons was him not being in his prime when the NBA became about pace and space, small ball, and position-less basketball. In this era, switching pick and rolls has become a very popular strategy among teams. With Smith’s great versatility, he would have been a great player to anchor a defense in today’s game. When Smith was in Atlanta, the pick and roll wasn’t as prominent, hence the defensive versatility not being as important.
Green is basically a super role player for the Golden State Warriors offense. He doesn’t create much offense off the dribble; instead he uses his fantastic passing skills to create offense. Because he is such a great passer for his size, it allows the Warriors to rely on him to find open teammates when he is the roll man on the pick and roll. Traditionally, the roll man has a hard time making the correct pass on that play but Draymond’s unique passing ability allows him to do it. Here are several examples of this very play:
Another way the Warriors use Green’s passing is in the post. They will throw the ball to him in the post and the rest of players on the floor will screen and cut. Once a passing lane opens up, Green will deliver the pass to the open man.
There are not many teams who will throw the ball into the post for their big man to pass the ball. But when you have a gifted passing big man like Green, this is something the Warriors can do.
Green’s passing is also utilized in transition. He has the ability to handle the rock at a high speed and make an accurate pass in transition even though he is a power forward. Here is an example of that:
As far as scoring goes, Green gets most of his points on open three pointers, layups off the pick and roll, and cuts to the basket. Last season, he attempted 44% of his shots from the restricted area and 37% of his shots from three-point land. He scored 10 points per game last season on 42/31/71 splits.
Smith, over the course of his career, showed that he was a terrific passing forward. The most common way he got assists was in transition. With formidable handles for a man his size, he was consistently able to grab the rebound on one end, push the ball up the floor, and find the open man.
Someone who possesses the passing skills that Smith does seemingly should average around six or seven assists like Green. Smith in his career only averaged 3.1 assists per game and his career best for one season was 4.2. The main reasons his assist numbers weren’t higher are the facts that he didn’t play in his prime during this era of basketball and he never was in a situation that could fully take advantage of his passing skills.
In this era, where more and more teams are going small, the floor tends to be spaced with more shooters. Draymond has reaped the benefits of small-ball in Golden State, where he plays center in the team’s most-used lineup. While playing center, he has Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Andre Iguodala spacing the floor for him. The first three are among the best shooters in NBA history and Iguodala is a capable shooter.
Josh Smith in his prime never had the opportunity to play small-ball center with four three-point shooters spacing the floor. He would always be in lineups featuring Zaza Pachuila, Al Horford (who didn’t shoot three’s while Smith was there), and Jason Collins. The last team he played a prominent role on was the Pistons, which featured the worst spacing around Smith you could possibly imagine. The most featured lineup involving Smith with the Pistons included Brandon Jennings, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Greg Monroe, and Andre Drummond.
This is pretty much the exact opposite of the lineup Green gets to be apart of in Golden State. Smith was forced to play small forward, and had no reliable shooting around him. Having this lack of spacing around him while he was playing at his peak, never allowed him to fully maximize his gifts as a passer.
Smith, if put in the right situation, could have been a much more efficient scorer as well. One of biggest pieces of the new NBA is the movement towards making the mid-range jump shot irrelevant. The focus for teams now is getting open shots at the rim and from the three-point line. Smith not only played in an era where mid-range jumpers were encouraged but he was also in love with taking them.
For example, in 2009-10 (one of Smith’s prime Hawks years) Smith took 999 shots with 253 of them being from mid-range. Smith shot 28.1% on those shots. For perspective, Green took 650 shots last season with only 34 of them coming from the mid-range, making only 20.6% of them. If Smith was able to put his focus on making open three’s and shots in paint, he would have been a much more efficient scorer.
When you look at the pure physical talents of Green and Smith, it is easy to see the similarities between the two. However, the intangibles of each player is the reason why Smith would’ve never been able to become Draymond. Green’s superior intangibles come into play mostly on the defensive end of the floor. In addition to his versatile skill set, he has a high basketball IQ that makes him one of, if not the smartest defender in basketball. He does a phenomenal job understanding the skill sets of the opponents on the floor, diagnosing plays the opponent is running, and how to appropriately help on defense. All of which is shown here:
What helps Draymond’s basketball IQ is the fact that he plays with such great passion and focus every night. It can sometimes hurt him (2016 NBA finals) but that extreme desire to win and emotion he plays with has helped him never let up on the opponent.
Compare this to Smith who had a reputation for not being the smartest player and not giving consistent effort. The lack of these intangibles hurt his defense as he would lose his man on cuts and screens, and sometimes not put forth good effort to stay with his man.
In the first clip Smith makes no effort to get back in the play after contesting Jeff Green’s shot, resulting in a basket. In the 2nd clip, he loses focus and allows Green to beat him back door.
Although the intangibles part of defense is hard to quantify, there is a statistic that sheds light on to the difference between Smith and Draymond.
|Year/Opponent’s offensive efficiency rating |
(three years Draymond has gotten playing time)
|When Draymond is ON the court||When Draymond is OFF the court|
|2014-15||98.6||105.5 (-6.9 difference)|
|2015-16||100.5||112.3 (-11.8 difference)|
|2016-17||102.4||107.4 (-5.0 difference)|
|Year/Opponent’s offensive efficiency rating|
(Smith’s best three years)
|When Smith is ON the court||When Smith is OFF the court|
|2007-08||106.7||113.9 (-7.2 difference)|
|2009-10||106.4||109.3 (-2.9 difference)|
|2010-11||105.3||111.4 (-6.1 difference)|
Green being in a better situation helps him get the large advantage over Smith. However, the gap is large enough where it is fair to say the difference in intangibles is a significant factor.
When you analyze Smith’s overall game, it is easy to come to theconclusion that his skills weren’t maximized. Smith had all of physical skills to be Draymond when you consider his size, quickness, athleticism, and passing ability. One of the reasons why he didn’t make the most out of his physical skills was because he didn’t have favorable surroundings. Smith played in an era and on teams that didn’t favor his skillset, which is nothing that he can control. Then when you look at someone likeGreen, you see a guy who was made for the era he’s playing in and forthe team he’s playing on.
However, the biggest reason why Smith never was and never could have been Draymond is because he lacked the intangibles Green has. Green’s leadership, effort, and basketball IQ makes the intangibles part of his game impeccable. No matter what happened with Smith in his career, he would have never came close to matching Green in that regard. While there are a lot more similarities between Smith and Green than people realize, it is clear that Smith could have never become Draymond.
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