Jan 14, 2013; Chicago, IL, USA; Atlanta Hawks small forward Josh Smith (5) dunks against the Chicago Bulls during the first quarter at the United Center. Mandatory Credit: Rob Grabowski-USA TODAY Sports

What Is the Next Move for the Atlanta Hawks in the Josh Smith Saga?

Christmas is over, but a big late gift to Hawks fans would be some clarity in the Josh Smith situation. Apologies if the Josh Smith matter has been beaten into the ground, but considering he is the de facto face of the franchise and a somewhat mercurial player on the court, I feel the need to revisit his position so far with the trade deadline creeping closer. If you’ve been under a rock for the past year, he is in the last year of his contract and is due a big payday in free agency. Many questions remain such as:

  • 1. Will the Hawks try to resign him?
  • 2. Will he demand/receive max money (similar to what Deron Williams received last summer, about $100 million over 5 years)?
  • 3. Does he deserve a max contract?
  • 4. Could the Hawks possibly trade him before the deadline if the front office doesn’t believe that he will re-sign?

With an extension is out of the question, the only options are to trade Josh Smith (presumably one involving a draft pick(s) and free of longterm cap burdens) before the trade deadline, or he stays until the offseason and negotiations begin between his agent and the many teams, including the Hawks, that may try to court him.

I highlighted some trade possibilities brought up by an ESPN writer in this piece before the season, and one involving Pau Gasol early in the season. If hypothetical trades are your thing, then the ESPN Trade Machine is for you.

With this new development of his suspension for “conduct detrimental to the team” including being kicked out of practice Tuesday, his trade availability may have grown. All indications from General Manager Danny Ferry point toward the Hawks not shopping Josh Smith and trying to resign him this summer. This is even while teams have shown recent interest, according to NBA Insider Ken Berger.

To answer Question #3, no, Josh Smith is not worth a max contract. Out of 203 players that have played at least 20 games and 20 minutes per game, Josh Smith is 184th in TS%. His TS% of .474 is 60 points below league average and his eFG% of .462 is 50 points below it. This is not max contract worthy. The fact that he has never made an All-Star game confirms this belief that Josh is seen as an incomplete player in some aspects. However, that has yet to stop other non-max worthy players for receiving one, especially in the case of players reaching restricted free agency. Eric Gordon, coming off a season with only 9 games played in the 2011-12 season was rewarded with $15 million a year for his services and Roy Hibbert was bestoed the same, for simply being large and serviceable.

Josh Smith has an addiction to jump shots he cannot make at an acceptable rate. This has been well-documented here and here. Josh contributes in many other areas, but his poor shooting has always been a sore eye on an otherwise impressive career résumé to date.

One comparison is Carlos Boozer, who currently draws the ire of Chicago Bulls fans for the maximum contract he signed three years ago. Boozer’s forte is efficient shooting, but poor, if not non-existant defense negates some of his offensive value, where as the reverse is true for Smith. Teams would rather stay competitive than miss out on big time talent. Handing out large contracts that most likely will not recoup the needed value to legitimize the decision is not a new practice (see the Atlanta Hawks in 2010 or the Brooklyn Nets now). Will some team seeking building blocks offer Josh $100 million over 5 years? Possibly, but there’s no way of knowing. Josh will have to blossom into a consistent force on both ends to match that figure, which is entirely possible considering his age, but he has yet to maintain production needed to be such a lofty status so far in his career.

Jan 12, 2013; Washington, DC, USA; Atlanta Hawks small forward Josh Smith (5) posts up against Washington Wizards small forward Martell Webster (9) during the first half at the Verizon Center. Mandatory Credit: Brad Mills-USA Today Sports

He seems to sound extremely happy with what management has done and his role on the team. A month ago, a piece came out that said Josh was strongly considering staying in Atlanta. Could Josh possibly take less money to stay in Atlanta, his hometown? If Lebron James is any indicator, hometown loyalties mean little when championship aspirations are at play.

After dispatching the Brooklyn Nets, a common question among fans I’ve encounter on Twitter or blogs has been, “Are the Hawks a better team without his contributions?” In a word: no, of course not, but the offense takes a different form without him; a form that is more conducive for the rest of the Hawks to buy into an uptempo system that plays to their strengths. The focus of the offense shifts to the Hawks guards, mainly Jeff Teague and Devin Harris, without Josh Smith’s post abilities ohis numerous jump shots. The result has been a dangerous slashing attack that has been very effective.

Because of injuries and suspensions, Josh Smith has missed three games this season. That amount is not a large sample size but the Hawks averaged 107.3 points in those games, limited their opponents to 96.7 points, and won all three over teams currently near the top of their conferences, Oklahoma City, Indiana and Brooklyn. Even without Josh Smith’s rebounding, they either won or tied the rebounding margin in all three of those games as well. However, there is no way of knowing Josh’s effect in games against such different opponents. These results could just be the normal fluctuation of an NBA schedule.

From a different angle, the answer could be attempted additively. If you are familiar with Sabermetics’s WAR statistic in baseball, Win Shares for basketball is its equal. Essentially, the stat tries to sum the total value a player adds (or subtracts) to a team above a replacement player (say a D-League or end of the bench player). Josh Smith currently has -0.7 Offensive WS, suggesting a replacement player would add almost a win to the Hawks total thus far, on offense alone.

Defensively, it is a different story, as no Hawk protects the rim in the same way as Smoove. Also, for such a poor rebounding team, Smith’s contributions there would certainly be missed over the long haul. His Defensive Win Shares totals 2.2 for the season, which places him in the top ten of the NBA. As it stands, his PER is above average, though unspectacular (17.4) but his Win Shares rate him 154th, all to Basketball-Reference, right between Kyle Singler and Brandon Wright.

In closing, this has not been Josh Smith’s finest season. Maybe I’m reading too much into this year’s stats and Josh could be simply having a down season when compared to the rest of his career. Just last season, Smoove stepped up in place of Al Horford and helped lead the team to a 40-26 record with a fantastic 21.1 PER and led the nation in Defensive Win Shares.

Even so, it is important to judge Josh Smith’s importance by more than a 35 game’s worth of Win Shares or even a career’s worth. He has represented Atlanta with his high flying dunks in Sportcenter’s Top 10 and his game changing blocks have scintillated the Philips Arena crowds. His career statistics are very impressive for any 18-26 year old, despite the frustrations he creates with his shot selection. Make no mistake, he has meant a lot to the Hawks organization over the years, but it might be time for his departure. Danny Ferry has often referenced the Spur’s franchise model in his interviews, reflecting his front office experience in San Antonio. A maxed out Josh Smith does not seem to fit into that picture that shies away from big, long term contracts.

One thing is for sure; no one has the answer to what lies ahead. May the outcome only be half as intriguing as the events of this past offseason.

Be sure to return back to Soaring Down South for any and all breaking news.

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