For an emergency point guard on a minimum contract, Ish Smith sure draws a lot of attention from Orlando Magic fans. The former Wake Forest star has tallied only 52 minutes in 11 appearances since Orlando inked him to replace Larry Hughes as its third-string point guard, much to Magic fans' chagrin. Though shooting just 3-of-11 from the field, Smith has tantalized Orlando faithful with his speed, quickness, and playmaking skill: in those 52 minutes, he's tallied 11 assists to just three turnovers. Based on comments made on this site and in other Magic-centric internet outlets, it's fair to say a majority of the team's fans believe Smith ought to get the nod over incumbent backup Chris Duhon.
What stands out about Smith, when watching film of his limited time running the Magic's offense, is the speed with which he advances the ball: here's a floor general who's eager to get his team into its sets. In that regard he differs sharply from Duhon. Though I don't doubt Duhon's desire to get Orlando set quickly, he struggles to bring the ball up against pressure, putting the Magic in a compromising position.
Orlando fans clamoring for Smith will be heartened to know their eyes don't deceive them: the Magic indeed play faster with Smith on the floor. According to NBA.com/stats, Orlando averages 94.79 possesions per 48 minutes with Smith on the floor, compared to 91.52 with him on the bench. While it's difficult to draw many meaningful conclusions from such a limited set of data--recall that Smith has logged only 52 minutes in Magic pinstripes--his career numbers bear out the hypothesis that Smith's teams play fastfastfast with him at the helm.
Prior to signing with Orlando, Smith played for the Golden State Warriors, guiding them to 95.7 possessions per 48 minutes as compared to the team's 93.62 figure with him sitting, according to NBA.com. The Houston Rockets, Smith's first NBA club, played slightly slower with him in the game as opposed to with him sitting, averaging 96.02 possessions per 48 minutes with Smith on the floor as opposed to 96.87 possessions per 48 minutes overall. Houston played an uptempo style anyway, ranking seventh in the league in pace that season, so it's not as though Smith slowed it down significantly.
The Rockets sent Smith to the Memphis Grizzlies as part of a trade-deadline deal involving Shane Battier. The Grizzlies played at an astronomically fast 100.43-possessions-per-48-minutes pace with Smith guiding them, a wild increase over their 94.5 overall figure.
But what this discussion has so far ignored is that pace is a descriptive statistic, and not an evaluative one. Playing faster isn't necessarily better. Some fast teams have great offenses, and some don't. Some slow teams have great offenses, and some don't. What it comes down to is personnel, skill-sets, and execution. If a team is built to play at a snail's pace, and executes its offense, then it can prove potent.
So does faster, as it pertains to Orlando, mean better? Would Smith really provide an upgrade over Duhon at backup point guard?
The individual numbers suggest he could. Though Duhon has proven surprisingly lethal as an outside shooter, nailing 42.9 percent of his three-pointers, Smith bests him from a playmaking standpoint. Duhon's Pure Point Rating of 1.7 ranks third on the team among rotation players--Jameer Nelson (4.6) and J.J. Redick (2.4) top him--and Smith's career Pure Point Rating of 5.0 certainly indicates a degree of playmaking competence Duhon hasn't achieved with Orlando, despite earning a decent reputation as a passer in previous stops with the Chicago Bulls and New York Knicks.
Duhon's at his best as a spot-up shooter playing alongside another ballhandler or two; think of him as how the Lakers used Derek Fisher alongside Lamar Odom and Kobe Bryant. Smith, in contrast, is a more dynamic playmaker, someone who can scramble a defense and find the open man.
Again, it's hard to put too much stock in the numbers of a player like Smith who has only played 557 minutes at the NBA level. But in re-watching his few minutes with the Magic to date, Smith's speed and handle advantage over Duhon is evident, and I'd be curious to know how the second unit might perform with him running it as opposed to Duhon.
But this late in the season, coach Stan Van Gundy isn't about to alter his rotation, meaning Smith will remain the third point guard the rest of the way unless Van Gundy has an abrupt change of heart.
Then again, there is a precedent for Van Gundy benching a veteran in favor of a youngster: during the 2008 NBA Playoffs, a rookie named Marcin Gortat claimed the backup center job from Adonal Foyle in the playoffs when Van Gundy saw Gortat's speed made him better suited to defend the Toronto Raptors' bigs.