While visions of Dwight Howard might be dancing in the heads of Hawks fans, the future of another free-agent-to-be is more central to the team’s long-term success.
He’s one of their own — Josh Smith.
Anyone who watched the Hawks last season knew it was a travesty that Smith did not earn a spot on the NBA All-Star team. He was the Hawks’ co-leader in points-per-game (18.8) and leader in rebounds-per-game (9.6) while averaging 3.9 assists and 1.7 blocks in playing all 66 games. In the playoffs, he upped his game, averaging 13.6 rebounds and 4.8 assists (his points dropped off by 2.0 per game, but it’s harder to score in the playoffs when defense and intensity pick up) and it’s arguable that by Smith’s getting injured and missing a game, the Hawks might have missed an opportunity to eliminate Boston in the first round.
For a while now, multiple reports have stated that Smith has asked to be traded, a situation that he has resisted commenting on publicly. If new general manager Danny Ferry didn’t consider Smith as integral to the Hawks’ future, Smith probably would’ve been gone already. Joe Johnson was traded despite the team’s owing him $90 million and having six All-Star appearances under his belt. Marvin Williams, who also reportedly asked for a trade, was dealt almost as soon as Ferry took over.
But not Smith. Instead, Ferry met with the immensely talented forward soon into his tenure, indicating that keeping Smith is probably high on Ferry’s priority list. The GM hasn’t divulged too many details about the meeting, only telling FOXSportsSouth.com that “I had a good meeting with Josh. I enjoyed talking with him and enjoyed starting to get to know him.”
Nonetheless, the intention would appear that Ferry is trying to get Smith to stay beyond 2012-13, after which Smith’s contract expires – and that Ferry’s entreaties may be working.
In a story published on Tuesday with SI.com, Smith “promptly responded, ‘No’” when he was asked if he still wanted to be traded.
“It’s interesting,” Smith told SI.com. “I think we have a great GM in Danny Ferry and he has a plan that he’s putting together. It looks good. I really am just trying to get to know these guys, to build a relationship and see where the team is going to end up closer to veterans’ camp. I’m just excited. We have a lot of elite shooters and I can see us being a run-and-gun shooting team.”
Maybe it’s also that fans weren’t the only ones who were tired of the Hawks’ having Johnson as their first option on offense. Johnson’s absence means that Smith will get more touches and more shots. In the six games that Johnson missed, Smith averaged 23.2 points per game (Al Horford also was out at the time so the Hawks had fewer options but that remains a big jump) compared to 18.3 with Johnson in the lineup. In addition, some of Smith’s best games with Johnson out came against some of the best teams in the league: 23 points at eventual league champion Miami on March 7, 27 at Indiana on March 6 and 30 against Western Conference champion Oklahoma City on March 3. In the Oklahoma City and Indiana games, Smith shot better than 50 percent (22 of 41).
Ferry already has said that by adding more and better shooters to the roster, he expects to free things up for Smith. That has to be music to Smith’s ears (even if fans continue to emit their collective exasperation when he lets fly a long jumper next season). Smith is such an amazing athlete that if he’s defended one-on-one on the low block next season, his scoring average (and possibly field goal percentage) could skyrocket in the same manner as his vertical leap does. In the lockout-shortened season, Smith set a personal best with 1,101 field goal attempts. Johnson’s fewest were his 931 last season and in his seven seasons in Atlanta, he averaged 17.6 shots per game. As a result, Smith is likely to pick up a good number of those.
Back in May, Smith was singing a somewhat different tune. He gave some ambiguous answers when he was asked about returning for 2013-14. He referred to the fact that he owes his last contract to an offer sheet from Memphis, which the Hawks matched – a tactic that does not seem to sit well with him.
“Well, I can’t be extended because they didn’t give me my money,” he said in May. “I had to go get it. That’s something I have to play it out and see how it goes from there.”
One thing the Hawks don’t want is for Smith’s situation to play out the way his childhood friend Dwight Howard’s has with the Magic, with the organization’s very future a daily soap opera on whether he will stay or whether it can get the best return for him in a trade. One would imagine that if Ferry, who is building for the future, can’t get a commitment from Smith to stay, then Smith won’t be around for long.
But if Smith does elect to stay, then he will definitely be bait in the attempt to lure Howard in a Christmas-in-July moment for the Hawks and their fans.
“You never know” Smith told SI.com of luring Howard to his hometown Hawks. “I mean, everybody has a possibility of getting him. To have a guy of that caliber would definitely be awesome. But he has so much going on right now that I don’t want to clutter his head with any more of it. I know that he’s going through a lot right now with that decision and it’s a long process for him. I don’t really bother him about it. I just call him sometimes to check up on him and see what he’s doing.”
For now, the Hawks seem to have a firmer idea of what Smith is doing and it seems to be in the organization’s best interests.