Utah Jazz radio voice David Locke tweeted last night that, “People in the NBA have told me the Rudy Gay deal is the domino that starts the dealings.” The Atlanta Hawks could be another team looking to deal, as I previously speculated. As the player movement gets sorted out, Hawks management must also sort out its relationship with Josh Smith.
Prior to the Hawks’ loss Sunday to the Knicks, ESPN writer Chris Broussard tweeted that, “Josh Smith’s reps will speak with Hawks’ GM Danny Ferry this week about Smith’s future in ATL.” According to Atlanta Journal-Constitution columnist Jeff Schultz, Smith has already drawn a “line in the sand,” declaring that he feels worthy of a max contract. Schultz also quoted Smith as taking issue with the organization for leaking details of his recent suspension to the public.
The timing of the suspension was important, coming as it did just before All-Star reserve selections were made and Smith was once again left out. Former AJC Hawks beat writer Michael Cunningham reported that the Hawks’ failure to promote Smith for an All-Star selection was among the reasons he wished to be traded last year.
Let me be the first to state that Josh Smith is, unequivocally, a max player. Think about players who have signed max contracts, a list that includes Brandon Roy, Gilbert Arenas, Amare Stoudemire, Joe Johnson, Elton Brand, Rudy Gay, Rashard Lewis, Carlos Boozer, Eric Gordon and Roy Hibbert. It’s hard to argue that Smith isn’t a more productive player and better risk than any of those players. You can argue that Smith doesn’t deserve to make as much as Kevin Durant or LeBron James, but market forces have determined otherwise. Smith will get a max offer this summer from someone. Book it.
Meanwhile Smith feels less wanted because the Hawks signed Johnson, Al Horford and Marvin Williams without making them test free agency. As you will recall, the Hawks allowed Smith to sign an offer sheet with the Memphis Grizzlies before matching. The Hawks won’t have the right to match if Smith signs with another team after this season. Thus, unless a trade is imminent, the time has come for Hawks GM Danny Ferry to publicly state that he will do whatever it takes to keep Smith in a Hawks uniform. A total commitment to keeping Smith with the team is the only hope to counteract what has happened in the past to make Smith feel that he was a lesser priority.
The Hawks need to do this for purely pragmatic reasons. Johnson was 28 when he started the first season of his current, 6-year deal, and will be 34 when he starts the final season. By contrast, Josh will be 27 when he starts the first season of his next contract, which will be limited to 5 years under the new collective bargaining agreement. Seeing the money the NBA has thrown at lesser players, Smith’s next contract will be a comparative bargain. Therefore, Ferry needs to do whatever it takes to get Smith signed, since Smith’s next contract will be a dramatically more tradeable asset than Johnson’s contract.
As Smith himself said, per Schultz, “There shouldn’t be any hesitation.”
Another thing that needs to be sorted out is the feelings of Hawks fans and Josh Smith for each other. Although I believe that Smith deserves every groan he hears when he winds up for another long jumper, fans may want to look at the history of the Orlando Magic for an object lesson on keeping star players around. When Shaquille O’Neal was being courted by the Lakers, the Orlando Sentinel ran a poll asking readers if Shaq was worth the money it would take to keep him. The majority of respondents said Shaq wasn’t worth keeping.
Although the Sentinel’s George Diaz insists it was the Magic’s lowball offer, not the lack of fan appreciation, that convinced Shaq to leave, I can’t imagine the poll helped. By the same token, I hope Smith will realize that the vocal minority of fans who think he’s not worth keeping are just that: a minority. Any fan with a basic understanding of basketball appreciates that Smith impacts the game at both ends in a way that a mere handful of players can approach, much less match.
While Hawks fans and management are sorting out their feelings about Smith, the mid-pack playoff picture in the East will do quite a bit of sorting over the next week as well. Following are the schedules for the next seven days for the teams presently ranked 3rd-through-6th in the East:
@ BKN Friday
@ ATL Saturday
@ IND Monday
vs. CHI Friday
vs. LAL Tuesday
@ DET Wednesday
vs. MIA Friday
vs. CHI Monday
vs. ATL Tuesday
@ PHI Wednesday
vs. CHI Saturday
@ IND Tuesday
vs. MEM Wednesday
Among these, only Brooklyn will avoid playing multiple teams in playoff position in the East. This week of games should tell us a lot about all of these teams, especially the Hawks. As HawksHoop’s Bo Churney noted, Atlanta’s opponents are all among the top-ranked defensive units in the league. Churney added that winning two of the next three “would give the Hawks a nice boost in national recognition.” I couldn’t agree more, and it all starts with the Bulls, presently the hottest team in the east, winners of eight of the last 10.
Whereas the Hawks once occupied 3rd place in the East and status as the conference’s surprise team, the Bulls have since supplanted them. Last off-season, the Bulls experienced a lot of turnover on their bench, losing Omer Asik to the Rockets in free agency and trading Kyle Korver to the Hawks for cash. One player the team obtained whose impact cannot be overstated is former Hawk Kirk Hinrich.
Although Hinrich is only averaging seven points per game, he has doubled his assists since last year in just over two more minutes per game while only seeing a minor uptick in turnovers. Hinrich’s solid-if-unspectacular play has been a stabilizing force for the Bulls and helped the team stay near the top of the East while Derrick Rose recovers from injury. If Rose is able to return at even 80% of his previous ability, the Bulls become instant contenders.
Hinrich will face former teammate Jeff Teague Saturday, whom Churney noted has been on fire in the wake of Smith’s suspension and the loss of Lou Williams for the season to injury. Churney noted that Teague has played over 36 minutes per game during that span while averaging over 19 points and 8 assists. Color me unsurprised, since I’ve been complaining all season that Teague was underutilized and wrote in December that he could put up numbers worthy of All-Star consideration if given five more minutes per game.
Teague could help the Hawks gain ground on the Bulls and regain some of the respect the team lost by falling in the standings. And he’ll have a chance to do it against the player that kept him on the bench early in his career, a player the Hawks traded two first round picks for because it lacked confidence in Teague’s game.