ATLANTA — With a 108-76 thumping of Orlando on Wednesday, the Atlanta Hawks head into the NBA All-Star Break with a bit of momentum and at least one major unanswered question.
At 29-22 and in sixth place in the Eastern Conference, the Hawks have won three out of four but sit only two games behind Indiana for third place, as the NBA trading deadline looms on Feb. 21. With 31 games left to play, the Hawks hold a seven-game lead over the 76ers for the final playoff berth in the conference, making them a virtual lock for a sixth straight trip to the postseason.
In the grand scheme of things, whether or not the Hawks reach the postseason should take a back seat to bigger questions, especially since making the playoffs is not the major accomplishment of five years ago (ending an eight-season drought).
With a flurry of deals shortly after taking over last June, first-year general manager Danny Ferry began his process of remaking the roster. After acquiring a slew of players owning expiring contracts, Ferry will continue that process in the coming offseason.
The most pressing question that Ferry must answer in the next seven days: What to do with pending unrestricted free agent forward Josh Smith?
In his ninth year with Atlanta, Smith has already stated his desire to be a “max money” player.
When Ferry took over, he cited salary-cap flexibility as one of his primary objectives for building the club. That is, he does not want to box himself in under the league’s cap with too many high-salaried players. That was the rationale behind two trades, sending Joe Johnson to Brooklyn and Marvin Williams to Utah.
Ferry freed up cap room to acquire his own players, as opposed to being stuck with the same core, as his predecessor Rick Sund largely was, especially after re-signing Johnson to a max-dollars contract (six years, $126 million).
The NBA’s new Collective Bargaining Agreement makes it extremely punitive for teams to exceed the cap and pay the luxury tax. Already, there is talk that LeBron James will opt out of his contract following the 2013-14 season and that Miami will not be able to keep him, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh together; that the Los Angeles Lakers will soon have to make difficult financial decisions involving Dwight Howard.
Whether to retain Smith is the question Ferry must answer with a player who unquestionably has high-end talent but, for whatever reason, has never made an All-Star team in his nine seasons. It’s not as if Ferry has not had enough time to make up his mind. By now, he should have had a large enough sample size to determine his next move.
For his part, Smith, who has been the subject of plenty of trade rumors recently, has played some of his best basketball over the last four games, averaging 24.5 points, 10 rebounds, 6.7 assists and shooting 53.7 percent.
“Well, I’ve been playing well,” Smith said after Wednesday’s game, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “I guess my game speaks for that question. I’m not worried about any outside distractions from the media, all the hearsay, and I just play my game and not worry about anything else.”
It’s difficult to think about how Smith’s play should be characterized. Is he showcasing himself in order to try and get himself traded? Is he showcasing himself to prove to the Hawks that he’s worth the max dollars he covets? Or is he simply playing to his potential, as he periodically but perhaps not quite consistently does?
As mentioned earlier, it’s not as if Smith is a new commodity to the Hawks. For the last six seasons as one of their best players, they have not gotten past the second round.
That’s a large body of evidence. Ferry must decide if Smith can help to bring a championship to Atlanta at Smith’s price. There’s also the somewhat tangential issue as to whether by re-signing Smith, the Hawks might be able to lure Howard, Smith’s friend and fellow Atlanta native.
Such a scenario only seems to beg more questions: Is Howard, with all of his injuries, still the player who can lead a team to the NBA Finals? Can the Hawks afford to pay him and Smith while maintaining the other pieces necessary to win at the highest levels?
If the market determines that Smith truly can demand a max-dollars contract, it’s also possible the Hawks could wait until the summer and pull off a sign-and-trade.
No doubt, Ferry has thought through all of these eventualities. The next seven days could bring some answers as to the conclusions at which he has arrived.