The Josh Smith Question

Buddy Grizzard —  January 22, 2013 — 4 Comments

Zach Lowe has a post up at Grantland in which he explores numerous trade possibilities for Josh Smith. Although I previously downplayed the severity of the situation, it nevertheless represents the key moment of Danny Ferry’s tenure as Hawks GM. If Ferry trades Smith, he will always deal with the same “what if” questions that have haunted the franchise since it traded Dominique Wilkins. However, if Ferry allows Smith to finish the season with the Hawks and become an unrestricted free agent, Smith could walk while the team comes away empty-handed.

Thus I feel it’s worth taking a look at all possible scenarios. Ken Berger of CBSSports.com reported that Wallace Prather, Smith’s agent, met with Ferry last week to convey his client’s frustration with the Hawks’ mid-season lull. Prather stopped short of issuing a trade demand or request, but wouldn’t you like to have been a fly on the wall at that meeting? Ferry must either solidify Smith’s volatile relationship with the franchise or pursue a trade to ensure the Hawks receive compensation for losing such a transcendent talent.

The pie-in-the-sky scenario is that Smith plays out the year with the Hawks, Dwight Howard has a miserable year in L.A. and the two friends decide to team up in Atlanta. The problem with this sort of daydreaming is, how can you rely on Smith to recruit Howard on behalf of the Hawks when you don’t know what his attitude toward the franchise is going to be from one week to the next? Unless Ferry has a handshake deal with Smith behind closed doors and feels assured that Smith will re-sign in the off-season, I see no reason to entrust the fortunes of the franchise to the whims of Howard or Smith.

As for Chris Paul, I just don’t see it. Why would Paul leave the Clippers, a team that has granted him de facto GM powers, to rescue a Hawks organization that turned its nose up at him during the 2005 NBA Draft? Rather than dwell on such long-shot scenarios, I’d rather take a look at what the Hawks have in Smith and what might be available at the trade deadline without waiting for the uncertainty of the off-season.

Earlier this season I looked at aggregate +/- numbers for Hawks players in losing games. I posited that these numbers are more significant in losses because any single player could have changed the outcome by playing better. As I noted on Friday, the team’s four losses to sub-.500 teams during the recent slide prevented the Hawks from staying near the top of the Eastern Conference. Change those four losses to wins and the Hawks would currently be second in the East behind only Miami. We’d be having a completely different conversation about the Hawks if not for those specific losses, so I feel they are worth a deeper look.

The following table shows the aggregate +/- for every Hawk that played at least 10 minutes per game in the recent losses to the Pistons, Timberwolves, Cavaliers and Wizards:

Player / Total minutes / Agregate +/-

Horford / 154 / -10
Smith / 143 / -41
Teague / 131 / -12
Korver / 130 / -16
Williams / 130 / -9
Pachulia / 87 / -8
Jenkins / 64 / -44

Two numbers obviously stand out in that table. Smith’s minutes were by far the most detrimental among the starters. Meanwhile John Jenkins, in the rotation as of late, played 64 brutal minutes in these losses. If his minutes were doubled and the Hawks were outscored at the same rate, he would be a disastrous -88 in roughly the same minutes as Korver, Williams and Teague. So did Smith send Prather to complain about extended minutes for a rookie who is obviously not ready? Because other than Jenkins, Smith has nobody to point the finger at but himself.

Smith shot 27.5% on over 7 shot attempts outside the paint per game in the four losses. Can a team that averages about 36 made field goals per game really afford to dedicate seven offensive possessions to Josh Smith jumpers? For the season, Josh is tied for 28th in the league in shot attempts from 16-23 feet among players who have played at least 10 games. His attempts per game at this distance have gone down over the course of the season, but among the top 75 in attempts, Smith ranks dead last in shooting percentage. You have to scroll all the way down to Emeka Okafor at 76th to find the only player among the top 80 who is shooting worse than Smith at this distance.

Before the season, I wrote that, “With [Joe] Johnson out of the picture, does anyone doubt Smith will have a career scoring year?” Instead, Josh is shooting his worst percentage from the field since 2005-06 to go along with a career-low free throw percentage. Smith’s scoring average is down two points from last year. He’s not competing with anybody for shots. Al Horford and Jeff Teague are just as deferential now as they were in previous seasons. Why hasn’t Smith been able to take advantage of this opportunity to be “the man” for this Hawks team?

I’m forced to conclude one of two things. Either we are witnessing Smith’s ceiling as an NBA player or Smith is drifting outside and avoiding the paint to protect himself from injury in a contract year. If the latter is the case, I certainly don’t blame him. If I had $98 million riding on finishing the season with healthy knees, I’d be cautious too. I think Bret LaGree put it best in his “Clip-and-Save Future Atlanta Hawks News” last May:

Josh Smith signs with another team, for a contract that team will come to regret, a fact which does little to assuage the final missed opportunity of Josh Smith’s career with the Hawks: losing him for nothing.

But could the Hawks end up being the team that signs Smith to a contract it will regret? If Smith, with a history of tendinitis, feels compelled to protect his knees, are those knees a good investment? And even if Smith were willing to change his shooting habits with the security of a long-term contract, will he ever be able to break the ingrained habit of trying — and failing — to be Kobe Bryant? Astute observers will recall that only Bryant had more attempts from 16-23 feet last year than Smith.

All that being said, and amidst all the trade chatter, I can’t believe we’ve heard so little about what seems like an obvious scenario involving the two hottest names: Smith and Rudy Gay. Memphis was mentioned by Berger as a destination with obvious appeal to Smith. It was the Grizzlies who made Smith feel wanted when they extended the contract offer the Hawks matched in restricted free agency. Meanwhile the Hawks have duplication at power forward with Smith and Horford, but have no small forward on the roster. Memphis could try to retain Smith beyond this season on a slightly sub-max contract, which would give it a bit of breathing room. One of Atlanta’s picks in the upcoming draft could serve as insurance in case Smith opted not to remain with Memphis.

Meanwhile the Hawks would finally have a go-to scorer. I suspect the issues in Memphis are related to Gay and Zach Randolph both demanding the ball. In Atlanta, Gay would be the unquestioned focal point of the offense from Day 1. The Hawks would gain a player who is top-5 at his position and capable of guarding LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony. Gay would be under contract for one more season. Although he will almost certainly decline his player option after 2013-14 and seek another long term deal, trading for Gay would give Ferry an additional 12 months to build around him or flip him for other assets. As of now, Smith’s expiring deal is a ticking time-bomb threatening to blow up in Ferry’s face. Pull the wrong wire trying to defuse it and he could go from celebrated for shipping out Johnson’s albatross contract to reviled as much as Pete Babcock, the former Hawks GM who shipped out the most beloved player in Atlanta Hawks history.

NOTES: This was written before today’s announcement of the Grizzlies’ salary dump which likely makes any discussion of a Rudy Gay trade a moot point. Nevertheless it lead to an entertaining exchange of emails between myself and HawksHoop.com editor Bo Churney, who said a trade for Gay “would be a colossal mistake.” Bo provided this link, but I disagreed with equating Gay’s contract with Johnson’s. I asserted that Gay will be a better player than Johnson in each of the remaining years of his shorter, more reasonable contract.

Bo said in reply, “Will Rudy Gay be better than Joe in those years? He’s still not better than him now, nor has he ever been. I get that Joe is aging, but with this trade, you would essentially just be getting Joe back (high-iso player, large contract). What I’m getting at is that Ferry doesn’t want another large contract; if he did, he probably would have acquired Pau Gasol before the season started.”

I’d like to get a ruling on the field here. Is Joe Johnson really a better player currently than Rudy Gay? Please help us out in the comments.

Buddy Grizzard

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4 responses to The Josh Smith Question

  1. I don’t equate Gay with Joe, but I do equate him with Josh. Both are SFs who play some PF. I realize that this would mean we’d get to keep Gay for longer instead of losing Josh to free agency, but Gay makes about $3 million more than Josh while having a PER below the league average (14.4 compared to Josh’s 17.5). I guess if we’re gonna roll the dice on that kind of contract, I’d rather go with the guy who not only scores, but contributes more on rebounds, blocks, and assists. I think Josh still has more upside (though difficult to tell if he’ll truly ever get there). I think if we were to deal him out, it would have to be for a center to take some of the wear and tear off of Al.

    I had the same thought as Grantland: a wacky thought might be Josh for JaVale McGee and Corey Brewer.

    JaVale has been efficient in Denver, but with the play of Kosta Koufos, he’s been getting limited minutes, and they still have Mozgov to back up Koufos. Brewer would provide another defender at the SF position. Josh fits Denver’s up-and-down game. It’s probably a silly idea in the long run, but it locks down a center for Atlanta and Brewer is on the end of his contract, so we could shed about $3 million if we want to by not resigning him.

  2. That’s a really interesting trade proposal, Mark, but I don’t think Denver goes for it. That would leave them scrambling to try to negotiate long term deals for both Smith and Iguodala after this season. They’re likely to lose Mozgov after this season. Thus, lightly-used though he may be, McGee gives them long-term depth at center. So who is better right now, Joe or Rudy?

  3. What a wacky, unpredictable world we live in. A year ago, who’d have thought that any fans in the NBA would advocate trading for Javale McGee?

    I’d say JJ is better than Gay right now, if only because of the mismatch he provides at SG. 6’7″-240lbs is a load for guys like Kidd, Korver, Rip to have to guard. JJ is good on the wing and in the post.

    But Gay is clearly a better player than Josh. Though the numbers might not bear that out this year, I’d trade Smoove for Rudy Gay any day of the week.

Trackbacks and Pingbacks:

  1. 3-on-3: HawksHoop explores trade deadline scenarios | HawksHoop - February 19, 2013

    […] change his mind. The biggest hurdle for this trade would be the approval of Chris Paul, whom I noted before has been given de facto GM powers by his team. The Clippers matched Golden State’s […]

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