Who is the real Josh Smith? The dynamic high flying forward who is a strong defensive presence that stuffs the stat sheet nightly? Or is it the apparent malcontent that is over reliant on a faulty jump shot who often lets his struggles effect his overall effort? The correct answer is all of the above and that is the dilemma for the Hawks. How do you get Josh to play the way that most helps the Atlanta Hawks team win? How do you balance out the good with the bad? Or is the answer that after seven years it is time for a fresh start?
All of those questions come to mind when you look back at the 2011 season of Josh Smith. Statistically speaking, this Smith season was on par with all of the others. His 16.5 points per game average was his second best performance of his career. His 47% shooting mark was the third best. All of that to go along with 8.5 rebounds, 3.3 assists, and 1.6 blocks per game.
Most notably the biggest change Smith made in the 2011 season was his rediscovery of the three point shot. After attempting just seven shots from beyond the arc in 2010, Smith attempted a whopping 154 in 2011 or about two per game. Even more so, according to hoopdata.com, Smith attempted 4.3 shots from 16 to 23 feet which was up from 3.0 attempts per game the season before. Essentially Smith moved his game away from the basket and the question is why? The answer? Simply because he thinks he is effective doing so.
The problem for the Atlanta Hawks isn't that Smith attempts jump shots from time to time, it is the timing of which he takes them. Often they come early in the shot clock or in the closing minutes of a close game. Whatever the situation, it is clear that Smith is a much more valuable player to the Hawks when he confines his offensive game to the interior rather than floating out to the perimeter.
One vast improvement Smith made this season was in his free throw shooting where he shot a career high 73% after shooting just 62% the previous season. More evidence of Smith's game sliding more out of the paint was the fact that he had 106 less free throw attempts this season over last. One stat I can't explain is that Smith's assist rate dropped from 4.2 to 3.3 this season despite the Hawks shift to more of a motion attack and his usage rate going up.
Defensively Smith's 1.6 blocks per game tied his career low for a season but that can't underscore his importance to Atlanta defensively. He spent much more time defending the small forward position and that certainly played a part in the dip in blocks per game. It wasn't hard to see what Smith meant to the Hawks defensively as the change was very noticeable when he was out of the game.
Since the season ended, there has been many rumors swirling around Smith with all signs pointing to the Hawks being intent on moving him. The feeling could be mutual as it surfaced that Smith had also grown tired of shouldering all of the blame for Atlanta's failures and might welcome a change of scenery. Now we are left with a summer of uncertainty that is only more clouded by the existing lockout.
On more than one occasion this past season, Hawks coach Larry Drew when asked about Josh Smith said something to the extent that you have to take the good with the bad. After seven seasons in the league, the Hawks may finally be tired of waiting on Smith to figure out the difference. Still there is that chance that he does figure it out that puts fear into such a move. If Rick Sund does ultimately move Smith then he has to address defense first in my opinion. Whether that is an unnamed defensive center that allows Al Horford to play power forward or not only he knows. In theory the Hawks defense should improve next season anyway with a full season of Kirk Hinrich and more minutes for Jeff Teague. Jamal Crawford's impending departure will also play a part in the club's perceived improvement defensively.
Smith is maddening to me as a fan, but I have never questioned his passion.. The problem I see is that he has supreme confidence and when things go bad he feels like he has to take it upon himself to get the Hawks back in the game whether that means bringing the ball up on the break or launching a three pointer early in the shot clock. He is an emotional player and wears those emotions on his sleeve often in games. He is a player that probably needed a strong willed coach to show him the way early in his career. I'm not sure that can happen in Atlanta as at no point in his career has he been held accountable for his play or his decision making on a consistent basis. By hiring Larry Drew last season, Atlanta just replaced Smith's biggest critic Mike Woodson with the assistant coach that was his confidant.
If I were asked right now whether or not Josh Smith would be in a Hawks uniform next season, I would place the odds at 50/50. His contract is short and is a bargain for a player of his stature. There is no doubt that there will be teams interested in acquiring him.
When it comes to Josh Smith Atlanta has to find the answers to many questions. Is he a small forward or a power forward? Is he the answer to a problem or is he the problem? Is he an All-Star or just another player in a long line that had supreme talent but never figured it out?