Expectations this last season for Josh Smith were simply put the highest. First, #1 option Joe Johnson was traded away leaving Josh as the highest paid player on the roster. Second, it was a contract season. Third, Josh has flirted with All-Star and All-NBA teams the last few seasons. Fourth, Josh had stepped up big with Al Horford out the previous year. And last, Josh stepped forward to try to be team leader off the floor at the start of the season. All these factors combined for the opportunity for Josh to prove he could be the man to build upon for the Hawks. The downside of such opportunity is the risk of fallout if he failed.
The season started slowly for Josh as he seemed to be struggling with his role. Then Josh started rounding into his own as the Hawks built a strong record. The first two months flew by with the Hawks flirting with 2nd place in the conference behind surprising strong defense. And then it went off the rails in January as defense lapsed and the players seemed to stop trusting each other. You could probably trace the meltdown to the 3rd quarter of the January 5th game against the Celtics. The Hawks were up by 15 at halftime behind Lou Williams’s best outing as a Hawk and then the Celtics dominated the 3rd by a score of 33-9. Josh had a very round game offensively going 4-18 and 1-5 from 3 point range. From that point on Josh struggled for consistency and the Hawks struggled as well. As the season started to get away from the Hawks the media discussion changed as well from how much would Josh get to resign to should the Hawks trade Josh before losing him for nothing. To his credit, Josh never let the trade speculation overwhelm him like it had done to other high profile free agents in recent years. The trade offers for Josh weren’t very good and the deadline passed. Josh had more good games than bad the rest of the season but every few games he’d have a clunker on offense. Sometimes he’d just not be engaged and you could see it in his body language and how he approached the game.
Looking at his stats as whole for the season certain things stand out. In terms of scoring he was down slightly from the previous season which was reasonable considering that Al Horford was back instead of Zaza and although Joe was now gone his offense was replaced by committee. Even though the points were down, it was still Josh’s 2nd highest points per game of his career. The damning numbers were Josh’s offensive advanced stats like an offensive rating of 97 and offensive win share of -0.3. In trying to understand Josh’s low numbers you have to come back to his free throw percentage of 51.7% which was by far the lowest of his career and his 3 point shooting numbers of 30.3%. The 30.3% from deep was actually an improvement over the previous year and better than his career average. What wasn’t an improvement though was his 201 3 pointers attempted. That number was the highest in Josh’s career and almost twice his annual average. The inefficiency overwhelmed the positive contributions to produce the negative advanced stats for Josh. Defense and rebounding for Josh were down slightly from the previous season, but areas were strong when compared to his career averages.
The overall nature of Josh’s results is that they were fine, but they didn’t rise to meet the great expectations that had been built up. Also if you break them down you find that the negative plays increased which is not unexpected when a player is trying to fill a role bigger than their abilities can sustain.
It was on a road trip to Brooklyn, the night before the Hawks had dispatched the Nets with ease at home. The Nets had an 8 point lead late when Atlanta went on a run. The Hawks had closed to within 3 when Josh Smith took a rebound and started heading up the floor. Brook Lopez ran with him and attempted to stop Josh’s progress but there was no stopping Josh. He thundered home the ball with devastating left. It was one of those plays that remind everyone what Josh is capable of at his best. Unfortunately it was the last Hawks basket of the night. The Nets added 4 free throws in the last minute to win by 5.
Josh Smith had the chance to prove he could be a number 1 piece to build upon, but didn’t. He’s a very good player who overreaches too much lowering his value with poor decisions. The fallout of failing to achieve lofty goals is that people will likely overlook all the good things you do and remember the bad. I think that's where things are with majority of the Atlanta fan base.
As a free agent, it’s hard to figure what to offer for such a player because on the one hand you think if he could be coached up his talent is hard to replace, but on the other hand after 9 years what you see is likely what you get. Atlanta could pay him more under the CBA, but whether they should is a different question that is likely answered no. He could still wind up here if the market proves too soft, but if that happened I would suspect it was just a temporary move to get something from an asset rather than lose his services for nothing. The far more likely outcome is that some coach feels they can reach Josh to get the good without the bad and a team pay him close to top dollar because of it. Will that optimism be rewarded? It's at least as likely as Josh draining a long jumper.