Josh Smith addressing the fans of the only team that's ever loved him (Getty Images)
Of course Josh Smith wants to be traded from the Atlanta Hawks. There hasn't been a week that has gone by since Atlanta selected him in the 2004 draft that either Smith or his team hasn't considered the possibility of some sort of separation. Atlanta would love to move the guy, in order to find a more orthodox interior threat to pair with and/or replace the injured Al Horford, or a near All-Star point guard to break things down when that Hawks offense gets staid. But it's Josh Smith, so nobody's buying.
That's the way it is with Smith, from fans, the media and other teams. We respect the heck out of him when he's got it all together, but we're not interested. Fans of 29 other NBA teams will read this column; and while you appreciate Smith's gifts, would you want his style of play and maddening up and downs on your team, at his eight-figure price, while having to give something significant back to Atlanta in the exchange?
Probably not. Even expiring deals, as Bill Simmons mused about here, seem to be too much for someone owed over $13 million next season. This has everything to do with Smith's averages, because though they're impressive (17 points, 10 rebounds, 3.5 combined blocks and steals), they're just averages. They're what he ends up after all his per-game stats settle, and not something you can depend on every night.
Smith should have been an All-Star this year. He's that good, and his contributions are worth that level of acclaim. But he remains the ultimate "nah, we're good"-player. Not unlike Philadelphia's brilliant Andre Iguodala, Smith's all-around contributions put a team in place to go over the top, but they don't put a team over the top. Unless it's a very good team. Unlike Iguodala, though, Smith isn't consistent, and he is still relying on raw talent alone to fill up that stat sheet. This isn't a case of selfishness, he's just stuck some eight years in.
This is why he's a luxury of a player. Someone for Dallas to trade for, if it were two years ago. Someone that you don't mind writing off when he chucks a series of corner long-twos and doesn't box out, because he's not as important (despite his All-Star gifts) as the four other go-to guys on your very good team. And unless your team isn't very good, and doesn't mind paying through the teeth for Smith's contract, there's no reason to have him on your team.
In this financial landscape, with even the Los Angeles Lakers potentially cutting their championship hopes off in order to save luxury tax money, who is going to take on Josh Smith? Respect him as an opponent, sure. But on your team? Nah, we're good.
This is also why the Hawks are likely to ignore his trade request. Because they've proven, for the last half-decade or so, that they're happy where they're at. Middle of the pack in the East, not a lot of potential to move up (the matchups, even at full strength, just aren't there), but able to still make that playoff revenue even if a significant part (like Al Horford, this season) goes down with an injury.
With or without Al, the Hawks need Smith. They need him to fill in the empty spaces, and are willing to pay him large amounts of cash and ignore those awful set-shot instincts of his to do it.
They're right to, by the way, because Smith is an expert defender when he's engaged, and he sets up all manner of random possessions for that predictable Hawks offense because of his ability to cause turnovers or grab (if not box out for) rebounds on both ends. On any other team properly utilizing him, he'd have to be a luxury. But because the Hawks are so committed to this brand of basketball because of their financial and personnel choices, Josh Smith is an utter necessity.
Which is why they're more than happy to overlook passages like this from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Michael Cunningham:
The person said one of Smith's complaints is that he believes the Hawks didn't do enough to promote him for selection to the All-Star team, which he thinks contributed to lesser players being voted to the team by Eastern Conference coaches. Smith, an Atlanta native who has played his entire eight-year career with the Hawks, also would like to play for a franchise he believes is more committed to winning a championship.
Smith (or, more specifically, Smith's buddy) is right and wrong when it comes to discussing Atlanta's commitment to a championship. In terms of payroll, and spending LeBron James-level cash on Joe Johnson, they're pretty committed to a championship-level debit sheet. It's focused on the wrong people, including Smith, which is why we can write off the Hawks as not being "committed to winning a championship."
The other part of that passage is the most annoying. Players who aren't voted in by fans as an All-Star starter have to make the team through a coach's vote. And head coaches will sometimes lobby other head coaches to influence their assistants to vote for certain players. Or, teams will send out promotional items to teams, hoping to sway that vote.
The problem is that NBA assistant coaches are filled in equal measures with crusty old school-types, and new school thinkers who have more stat sheets in their hotel room than they do friends on Facebook. And either side ("Bad attitude, doesn't box out"; "shoots 27 percent on long 2-pointers, easily the worst shot in basketball") has a reason to dismiss Smith, even if he probably should have been an All-Star. No amount of campaigning from head coach Larry Drew or Atlanta's front office would have made a difference. Even if, yeah, he probably should have been on that team.
Stuck in another season of the same old thing in Atlanta, a bored Smith (and people close to him) have this to fixate on. Because, with Smith and the Hawks, things will always be the same.
Which is why, following the March 15 trade deadline, they'll probably still be with each other.
- Josh Smith