Kevin C. Cox
Josh Smith finally has the opportunity to be the main guy on the Hawks with Joe Johnson gone. Potential has been the word used with Smoove for years, this is the year he needs to fulfill it because the Hawks will go only as far as he will lead us.
Josh Smith is the most polarizing figure in Atlanta sports. He can wow the crowd with athletic brilliance that brings them to their feet, and just as quickly can launch a contested 22-foot jumper that brings them to their knees in agony. His status as leader of the team is unquestioned in the locker room and on the floor by his teammates, but for many fans he is still an immature kid that pouts and whines when things don't go his way. Smith's status as both hero and villain can be seen on a nightly basis in the Highlight Factory. The ovation he receives when announced as "J-Smoooooooooooove" is followed by the collective cries of "NOOOOO!!!" the first time he launches his patented high-arcing jump shot from just inside the three point line. No matter what your theories on Josh are, (I've heard everything from "he's a top 10 player in the league" to "he's a bum") he is the barometer of the Hawks success.
With Joe gone, Josh becomes the unquestioned leader of the team on the floor (something he already was off the court), a transition that really began last season. Last season, Smoove (per the Hollinger Index) had a usage rate of 26% compared to Johnson's 23%. Josh's usage jumped from 22.8% in 2010-11 while Joe's dropped from 24.7%. Josh was somewhat thrust into the lead role after Al Horford's injury early in the year, and he took the responsibility and handled it well. Smoove shot 45.8% from the field (a dismal 24.1% from 3), averaged nearly a double-double with 18.8 points per game and 9.6 boards per game, has 1.7 blocks and 1.4 steals per game as he continued to be one of the top interior defenders in the NBA.
Looking at Synergy, Smith's production came from two main areas: Spot-up and Post-up. Spot-ups accounted for (gulp) 25.3% of Josh's offense. He ranked 238th in the league averaging just 0.81 points per possession (PPP) on spot-up attempts and shot 36% from the field scoring 38.3% of the time (that takes into account FTs). On post-ups (19.9% of his offense), Josh averaged the same 0.81 PPP, but that ranked 84th in the league and he shot 39% from the field scoring 42.6% of the time he posted up. The areas Smoove excelled in the most were cuts to the basket and pick-and-roll as the roll man. On cuts (9.1% of his offense), Josh averaged 1.32 PPP and shot 67% scoring 67.6% of those plays. On pick-and-rolls (6.2% of his offense), he averaged 0.89 PPP, scored 44.1% of the time and shot 44.7% from the field. Smith's per 40 numbers took a significant jump last season. He averaged 21.3 points per 40 (highest by 1.9 ppg), 10.9 rebounds per 40 (highest by 1 rpg) and 4.4 assists per 40 (second-highest to 09-10). Also, most importantly, Smith's turnover rate was a career low 9.9% compared to his career average of 12.4%.
This year, Josh's offensive production should be more efficient within the new system. Isolation and spot-ups accounted for 39.3% of his offense last season which was caused by slower ball-movement and his infatuation with the long jumpers. While he will continue to (and in the process frustrate all Hawks fans) pull ill-advised jumpers, he (theoretically) will get more opportunities on cuts and pick-and-rolls. The Hawks, with more ball-handlers that like to work within the motion system, will make pick-and-roll more of a focus this season and Smith will benefit from it. I fully expect the isolation and spot-up percentage to decrease (not drastically) and his cuts and rolls to increase, which will create better scoring chances and increase his efficiency all while staying in the flow of the offense.
On the other side of the ball, Josh's defensive responsibilities will be increased. He will guard the opposing team's best forward on most nights (either at the 3 or the 4) and will also be asked to be more active on pick-and-roll coverage now that the Hawks have gone away from switching and to a more aggressive trap-and-recover technique. Smoove is still one of the most feared shot-blockers in the NBA and has become quite adept at jumping passing lanes. Where he must improve for this team to have any real chance at contending for more than just a spot in the playoffs is in his one-on-one defense. His help defense is undeniable with his ability to float across the lane and block shots and his knack for getting in passing lanes. However, Smoove was not good (actually pretty bad) in isolation situations when his opponent faced him up. Smith allowed 0.96 PPP against isolation which ranked him 286th in the NBA. Opponents ran isolation plays against Josh 15.4% of the time and shot 43.5% from the field against him scoring on 47.6% of isolation possessions. He was much better in the post, which accounted for 32.4% of his defensive possessions, where opponents averaged 0.79 PPP and shot 41.5%, scoring on just 40.1% of those possessions. Josh also defended spot-up shooters frequently, 31.9% of the time, and allowed 0.9 PPP for 134th in the league but opponents scored just 36.9% of those possessions.
This season, Josh's isolation defense will need to improve, especially when he is defending small forwards as he will against Melo, LeBron and others at times. The Hawks lack of a strong wing defender will force Josh outside more often, which, while he is long and very athletic, he often plays off of his man to force the opponent to shoot. That strategy works occasionally against power forwards, but against more rangy threes it can open up opportunities for easy mid-range shots.
While the physical tools are the known, Josh's mentality is always the question mark. At times in the past he has shut it down and go into full blown "Bynum-mode" (you never go full Bynum), becoming totally disconnected from the game. While he would never publicly admit it, Josh was often frustrated (as were others) with Joe's slower pace and isolation game and now that Joe is gone Josh is the undisputed leader (yes, Al's a leader but Josh is THE man), and he is enjoying that role. While those moments will still occur where Josh loses focus, I believe they will be fewer and farther between this season. He's embracing his role, and one can never underestimate the power of a contract year as motivation for a player looking to prove himself (especially one who's so close to that All-Star caliber that almost guarantees max money).
The man who dubbed himself "Mid-Range Shawty" this offseason (Hawks fans wish he would've said Low-Post Shawty) will finally have his moment in the sun (okay in Atlanta it's more like partly cloudy) to show his worth as "the guy." His potential in this motion system, should the Hawks commit to it, is huge. He is one of the top finishers in the paint and if (it's a big if) he embraces a role playing more towards the hoop on rolls and cuts he could have an incredible season. The Hawks will go as far as Smoove take them this year, so in Mid-Range Shawty we trust (or do we?).