In a world where quantifying efficiency is of paramount importance as it pertains to our perception of professional basketball, Josh Smith is, and has always been, a perplexing and paradoxical case. No one will ever question his physical prowess or innate athletic ability—it’s almost unheralded, but his legacy as an Atlanta Hawk will be forever tied to the team's collective mediocrity—to unfulfilled expectations and to lost talent.
But despite those marring characterizations of expected remembrance, his legacy will be ever-more tied to this city: an Atlanta native with a relentless work ethic and a strong sense of professionalism, a face of a franchise struggling to find an identity, a perfect embodiment of a team full of strengths and deficiencies, and lastly, a fantastic and breathtaking player who stood at the helm and forefront of an era of Atlanta Hawks basketball.
The criticisms are well known and often discussed among Hawks fans, bloggers, and pundits. But, in any conversation about the legacy of Josh Smith, they’re worth glossing over, and that’s about it.
So lets get this out of the way: his shot selection was abysmal—there was some devil perched atop his left shoulder whispering about the sexiness of bricked 18-footers and pull-up jumpers, and for some reason, he listened. He put a chink in his efficiency, lowering his field goal percentage with every ill advised upchuck.
Aside from that well documented flaw, Smith was about as complete a player as one can be, but that didn’t stop the onslaught from the public or the hilarious "boo!"s that accompanied every outside shot. He didn’t deserve half of the heat laid at his doorstep, but he received the complaints with class, even if he maintained a stubborn resilience to continue his questionable shot selection.
There was some absurd notion that sprung from this flaw that spread across the media and a certain portion of Hawks fans: Josh Smith was not a smart basketball player and his "basketball IQ" was the problem.
This notion couldn’t be further from the truth—his passing ability is elite for a forward; his understanding of defensive concepts is phenomenal; his ability to not only make highlight plays, but make the right decisions in the open court is almost unparalleled for a player of his size. He was a leader, a teammate, a hard worker, and a professional.
Every offseason there seemed to be a story about Smith busting his rear in the gym, cultivating his craft or preserving and improving his physical shape. Maybe he didn’t always take the right shot in the flow of the offense, but his effect on the game in all other facets was at a level so ridiculous that no other player in the history of the franchise can claim the same level of all-around dominance.
His development from a springy but unpolished athlete nine years ago to the terrifying defensive force and strong offensive presence that he’s become has been amazing to watch. When Smith first slipped on a Hawks uniform, the colors were red and yellow and I was in elementary school, unaware of how important he would turn out to be. I didn’t know very much about basketball, but I knew I liked Josh Smith.
The reasons may not have been intricate, but they were what you would expect of someone that age: I loved the athleticism, the dunks, and of course, the 2005 slam-dunk contest victory. He slipped on that 'Nique jersey and windmilled his way into Hawks history, but that was only the beginning of a career that would take off and turn into an enigmatic ride that was, in a word, impressive.
Despite the constant barrage of nitpickers, he’s already one of the most revered Hawks of all time. His relationship with the city began at birth, and his homegrown and hometown personality, coupled with the incomparable excitement he produced, made him an instant fan favorite. His ascent to stardom gained him the undiluted and permanent love of the city, but his subsequent plateauing in effectiveness made the love shine a little less bright.
Now, as Smith leaves behind the Hawks and begins the second half of his career in Detroit, the shine should regain the luster it once held. Some fans will be devastated, some relieved, but Josh Smith was the face of an era, even more so than Joe Johnson. He was the perfect embodiment of the team as well—so talented, but so frustrating; so awesome, but with clear limitations as well. His place in Hawks lore is cemented, and it’s filled with highs and lows worth remembering.
Here are a few of them:
High: His coming out party in the 2005 Slam Dunk Contest in which he jumped over Kenyon Martin and later pulled out Nique’s pacman jersey to throw down a hellacious windmill.
Low: Going 13-69 in his rookie season. That’s what happens when Al Harrington is your leading scorer and Tyronn Lue and Tony Delk is your point guard tandem.
High: Bursting onto the scene in the 2008 NBA playoffs, cementing his place as an up-and-coming star in the league.
Low: Attempting a between the legs dunk in the 2009 NBA playoffs. It turned out poorly.
High: Being the youngest player to record 10 blocked shots in a game, 500 career blocks, and 1000 career blocks.
Low: Becoming known as a guy who should not shoot threes in the 2008-2009 season, but still does anyway.
High: Shooting only seven threes in the following season (2009-2010) and committing to a game better tailored for his skills.
Low: Regressing back to shooting a lot of threes, setting a new career high in three-pointers attempted in a season two of the three subsequent years.
High: Being selected to the NBA's Second Team All-Defense for the 2010 season.
High: Giving, in my opinion, a top-4 playoff game of any Hawks player since the relocation: his Game 4 performance against the Bulls in the 2nd round of the 2011 playoffs in which he tallied 23 points, 16 rebounds, 8 assists, and a countless number of hustle plays that ensured a Hawks win and a tied series.
High: Leading the Hawks through an injury riddled 2012 season, steering the team through the bumps and bruises and torn pectorals of Al Horford and Joe Johnson. The Hawks amassed the 4th best record in the East with Smith as the lone go-to guy for a majority of the season.
Low: The 2013 playoffs, in which Smith went through spurts of effectiveness in the post and spurts of defensive brilliance, but ultimately reveled in the flaws that corrupted the country’s vision of him, relying on his broken jump shot in the final two games of the season.
High: All of these
Josh Smith Highlights (Go Hard) (via Milan Kozlovacki)
The legacy of Josh Smith is far from absolute. Opinions will be formed on both sides of the spectrum, but the most polarizing Atlanta Hawk in a long time has left the building.
His name won’t be the last called in the introductions of Philips Arena, his dunks will no longer be punctuated by the name of his hometown city across his chest, and his jump shots will no longer be booed by a confused crowd struggling to assign a level of affection to their inscrutable star.
Josh Smith is gone, and he’s taking with him an era of Atlanta Hawks basketball that he helped create. For better or worse, both Smith and Atlanta are moving on.