There was a surreal moment a few days ago in Atlanta. The Nets made their first stop of the season at Philips Arena. Fans finally had a chance to finally boo Joe Johnson for his albatross contract and his inability to carry a team, which were both blamed for the problems of a club that’s never made the conference finals.
Each time he touched the ball, it got louder. Who knew a Hawks home game could get this gritty and passionate in January? Johnson and the Nets lost, which means a half-empty arena was satisfied -- and also totally oblivious about the other key player in this scenario.
Well, actually, it was easy to miss him. Josh Smith wasn’t even in the building.
He was booted from Hawks practice the day before and suspended for that game for “conduct detrimental to the team,” code wording for “Josh did what Josh often does.” After a surprisingly fast start, when they were 10 games over .500 and third in the East, the Hawks lately felt a gravity pull. They began losing and Smith, often quick-tempered and still crawling toward maturity, went full blast after the Hawks scored 58 points in Chicago.
OK, fine. He had a rare emotional relapse. Smith has made significant strides the last few years after his frequent head-butts with former coach Mike Woodson, and nobody in the organization believes Smith will have further issues with Larry Drew. The Hawks won the game without Smith, so the only damage will be if the suspension costs him the all-important coaches vote, causing him to miss yet another All-Star Game.
There’s a bigger-picture issue, however, for the Hawks. Smith becomes an unrestricted free agent this summer, and a decision about his future isn’t so automatic. There’s the potential for doom if they keep him or if they let him go, a damned-if-you-do/don’t scenario that has the franchise and general manager Danny Ferry in a tight spot.
Because he’s a borderline All-Star with amazing physical gifts for someone 6-10, Smith will be in demand, whether wanted by the Hawks or someone else. He’s a hybrid frontcourt player. Not many can average 17 points, seven or eight rebounds with four assists, two or three blocks and as many steals. Over the course of a season, he’ll do something that’ll make you shake your head. For various reasons.
Smith can be unpredictable with the ball and is often blamed (unfairly, in some cases) for taking three-point shots instead of sticking closer to the basket like another athletic forward, Blake Griffin, where his length can do damage. When he plays on instinct, he’s in his element. When thinking too much, he overanalyzes situations and often makes the wrong decision.
All told, though, Smith is an asset the Hawks can’t afford to let slip away. He has impressively led them to 22 wins in their first 38 games without Johnson. But just how valuable is he?
Is he a max contract guy? Close? We do know he isn’t someone who puts fans into the seats, nor good enough to carry a team to at least the East finals, neither of which has happened on his watch. Therefore, he’s not a franchise player. Those questions, and not the ones about his maturity, are what Ferry must examine before making a decision that could impact the Hawks for the foreseeable future.
When they were confronted with a critical free agent situation two summers ago, the Hawks panicked. They overestimated Johnson’s worth and paid him close to Kobe money. That would’ve been fine if Johnson produced Kobe results; instead, he was a solid All-Star who couldn’t push the Hawks deep into May. His contract weighed down the team, and removing it became a priority when Ferry took the job last summer.
Ferry shifted mountains when he shipped Johnson to the Nets and cleared salary cap space for a free agent run this summer. Problem is, no one expects Ferry to get Chris Paul and/or Dwight Howard --the only 2013 free agents who can transform a team.
The only significant player under contract for the Hawks next season is Al Horford, a decent player and even better leader who nonetheless isn’t the type to build around. Ferry has money to spend, but if he isn’t smart with it, the Hawks will have wasted an opportunity to remake themselves. They’re crying out for a marquee player who can own Atlanta like Dominique Wilkins once did, and Smith isn’t that player.
The choices, then, for Ferry are to pay Smith the market rate, projected to be somewhere around $14-$18 million a season, and keep him as the face of the franchise, or find someone else, if not this summer, then in 2014. Or somehow pay Smith and hope to free up enough money in 2014 to find a co-star.
Or, and this is the more unlikely scenario, send him packing by the trade deadline.
The worst-case scenario for the Hawks isn’t bringing Smith back and watching him blow another fuse. It’s paying him Joe Johnson money and watching him become another Joe Johnson.