I was sitting in a bar last weekend and saw on the ESPN Bottom Line that the Hawks were reportedly leaning toward trading Josh Smith. Along with everyone sitting at my table with me, I was very excited to see this. We tried imagining what we could get in return, and this quickly turned into making Ed Monix jokes. It would seem strange to be in favor of trading the player who leads the Hawks in points and blocks, is second in rebounds and assists, and is as naturally gifted as any player in the league. Especially for only a washing machine. Yet as I listened to a local sports talk show on the radio, not one person called in to say that they thought trading Josh was a bad idea. In fact, the narrative wasn’t so much about whether they were for the move, but what would be acceptable to receive in return (more than a washing machine). If Josh does end up getting traded, the Hawks will have traded three of their most talented players in the past year. This could end up being the best thing that’s ever happened to the franchise.
The thing about the NBA is that to be a legitimate contender, you have to have at least one superstar and surround him with complimentary players (with a superstar being classified as a top-10 player in the league). With the ’04 Pistons maybe being an exception, every single team that’s won the NBA Championship in the past 30 years has had a superstar (I say maybe because an argument could be made that Chauncey Billups was a top-10 player in the league that year… Also, you could probably go back more than 30 years, I’m just too lazy to look and see). In my lifetime, the Hawks have never had that type of player. Dominque was very good in his prime but just outside the top-10 because he was essentially just a scorer. Dikembe was outside the top-10 because he was essentially just a defender and rebounder. The Hawks have had six Top-6 picks since 2000 trying to find that superstar and came up with DerMarr Johnson (who played 2 years in Atlanta before an accident derailed his career), Pau Gasol (who never played a minute for the Hawks), Josh Childress (who left for Europe after 4 seasons), Marvin Williams (was a 6th man in college, stayed that way in the pros), Shelden Williams (laughing hysterically), and Al Horford. Horford would be a good second or third option for a legitimate contender, but is not quite a superstar . Neither is Joe Johnson, and neither is Josh Smith. It seemed obvious to Hawks fans and general observers of the NBA that a nucleus of Johnson, Smith, and Horford could not lead a serious contender. So when the Hawks resigned Johnson to a multi-year contract that paid him more than Lebron James, Kevin Durant, or Chris Paul, all hope that the organization had a plan to create a contender from this assemblage of talent was lost. Barring a change of leadership, the Hawks would be penciled into a mid-to-low seed in the playoffs (and an early exit along with it) every year for the foreseeable future.
Enter Danny Ferry. Ferry spent his formative years in management with the Spurs, one of the smartest organizations in the NBA. The hope was that he would bring some common sense to an organization that desperately needed some. His first major move after arriving was finding someone willing to take Joe Johnson and his ridiculous contract off their hands. Then he dumped the underachieving Marvin Williams and his burden of a contract as well. Atlanta fans rejoiced that in Ferry, they found someone who finally had a plan, not someone who just aimlessly threw money at talent. That is a strategy that can only work in a place like New York, L.A., Boston, Chicago, or Miami. Actually, those are the only places that it can work because they are the only places that can attract legitimate superstars when they hit free agency. This is why all those who think Atlanta has a realistic shot of signing Dwight Howard are clearly ignoring every story that looks like this. The only way for teams that aren’t in the major NBA markets to be competitive is to draft well and spend their money wisely. Ferry’s pedigree with the Spurs suggested he knew how to do this, and moving Marvin and Joe immediately proved it.
So now it is Josh Smith’s turn. Josh is not a bad player, but he’s never understood the strengths of his own game. He is 6’8” and can jump out of the building. He is one of the best shot blockers in the NBA and is physically superior to almost any small forward he matches up against. The most underrated part of his game is when he is able to get into the low post, where he has a surprising number of moves he can use on undersized defenders. If he played to his strengths, really worked on his post game and actually stayed in the low post, there’s no reason why he couldn’t be as dominant as say, Charles Barkley. The problem is that Josh Smith doesn’t want to be on the low post. He wants to bring the ball up the court, and he wants to handle the ball on the perimeter, and he wants to beat defenders off the dribble, and he wants to be an outside shooter. Instead of focusing on the one area where he excels and building his game around it, he tries to do too many other things that his skills are not equipped to do. This makes him absolutely infuriating to watch. One possession he’ll dominate an undersized forward in the low post and get an easy bucket, but the next he’ll be shooting one of his 24-footers that almost hits the jumbotron and then clanks violently off the rim (or backboard). He’s a career 28% 3-Point Shooter who is shooting more 3’s this season than any other in his career (to be fair, his 3-Point % this season is also higher than it’s ever been… but it’s still only 35%).
He also doesn’t know his own worth. Despite all the flaws in his game that he actively accentuates, he was recently reported as saying he deserves a max contract, the same deal the old Hawks regime doled out to Joe Johnson less than three years ago. This is of course ridiculous. Sure, he has the talent to be potentially worth that kind of money. But this is his 9th year in the league, and he still hasn’t figured out how to appropriately use his talents. Offering him that type of contract would only validate his current playing style, not get him to make necessary changes. So the rumblings that Smith is being shopped around means that not only will we not overspend on another 2nd tier star, but that there’s actual thought into getting some compensation back instead of just losing him in free agency. Even with all his flaws, Smith could be very valuable to a contender. A team like the Spurs, Ferry’s old employer who’s reportedly interested in Smith, has a veteran coach and veteran leaders in place who could presumably corral him in.
Ideally, the Hawks will complete a deal sending Smith for maybe another role player, maybe some expiring contracts, or maybe even a draft pick or two. Regardless of what they get in return, dealing Josh Smith away would be good for the franchise. The team would get worse in the short term, but this would further distance the organization from their past ways of overspending on underachieving players. It provides a chance to re-establish the culture of the franchise through draft picks and sensible free-agent signings. It also provides Hawks fans with something they have rarely had: hope that the people running the organization actually know what they’re doing.