Josh Smith broke out, improving across the board on his injury-limited 2008-09 season, becoming an All-Star Game snub célèbre, finishing second in Defensive Player of the Year voting, and making the All-Defensive Second Team. Smith was central to the team's success. He and Al Horford were the only two Hawks who, when they were off the court, saw the team get outscored.
Smith got lots of attention, all of it positive, for attempting just seven three-point shots (most of them at the end of quarters) during the regular season. A career 26.6% three-point shooter, Smith had attempted at least 87 three-pointers in each of the four previous seasons.
Smith also greatly increased the percentage of his field goal attempts which came at the rim* where he made 65.6% of his attempts.
|Josh Smith||%FGA (at rim)||FG% (at rim)|
*All that time spent at or near the rim also allowed Smith to take better advantage of both his passing and offensive rebounding skills. Smith set career highs in assists, assist rate, offensive rebounds, and offensive rebound rate.
Why then, did Smith's eFG% decline slightly (from 50.8% to 50.5%) from 2008-09 to 2009-10? Because Smith didn't actually reduce the number of jump shots he took by the degree the three-point attempt column of the box score suggests and, on the rare occasions those jump shots went in, none of them were worth three points.
|Josh Smith||%FGA (16' +)||eFG% (16' +)|
Smith made a largely cosmetic rather than a fundamental change to his shot selection. Even worse, he backslid on what progress he'd made in this regard in the Orlando series where (small sample size acknowledged) jump shots constituted more than 30% of his field goal attempts and less than half his field goal attempts came at the rim. This even though Smith made a typical 27.8% of his jump shots and 65.5% of his shots at the rim.
It's incumbent upon the next Hawks coach, whoever he may be, to succeed where Mike Woodson failed throughout his tenure. Smith must be convinced to embrace his gifts, maximize his strengths, acknowledge his weaknesses, and minimize his exposure of those weaknesses. Even the idea of Smith improving his jump shot is, at this point, a virtual dead end, given the more realistic and fundamental areas in which Smith can and should improve: his free throw shooting, his lateral movement when defending away from the basket, and not letting referee decisions impact his effort.
Josh Smith is unique, a devastating scorer and passer when he receives the ball in an area where he deserves the attention of one or more defenders but a complete offensive liability when he stands 20 feet from the basket. He's an outstanding, game-changing help defender (and has become a decent on-the-ball defender in the post) but a defensive liability when asked to defend in space or close out on perimeter shooters.
Josh Smith clearly cannot play small forward but he does not conform to the generic conception of a power forward, either. At 24, he faces two choices. He can continue to suppress his individuality in a futile attempt to fill a traditional role or he can consolidate his strengths, accept (and let go of) his weaknesses and make something new, something just for himself, and bend the game to his will. If he chooses the latter path, he'll have the opportunity to take a place alongside Bob Pettit and Dominique Wilkins in the history of this franchise.