Wednesday, June 13, 2012
Once More, With Feeling: Reviewing Josh Smith's Season
The jump shots don't reflect well on anyone: not the player, not the head coach, not the organization. The player's insistence on taking the jump shots, the head coach's indulgence thereof, and the organization's dysfunction can also overwhelm the depth and breadth of the player's contributions to winning basketball games.
Josh Smith's stubborn insistence on taking lots and lots of jump shots, more than 500 of them during the 2011-12 regular season, again existing in tandem with some very poor free throw shooting (63%, not even matching his poor 67% career rate), suggests the answer as to why Smith does this to himself, and his team, rests in the realm of psychology. Whatever need low-percentage shots fills for Smith appears to be insatiable. There's no debate to be had about Smith's shot selection. These are bad shots. Taking so many of them hurts the team and prevents him from making maximum use of his varied talents.
But Josh Smith is not just the sum negative value of those jump shots. Nor was Larry Drew, last season, simply an enabler of his best player's worst offensive habit. Drew also made it possible for Smith to take great advantage of his best defensive attribute. By shedding the worst defensive players from the backcourt and generally playing guards and wings capable of defending their positions, Drew allowed Smith to serve as a true help defender. No longer was he forced to rescue an incompetent or mismatched teammate, he could provide a second level of defensive pressure on opponents.
Because Larry Drew's offense either encouraged or accepted jump shots over more efficient shot types, the Hawks had to win with defense. Smith led that effort. And, because he was helping rather than bailing out his teammates, Smith's efforts didn't remove him from defensive rebounding position as often as in past seasons. He posted a career-best 24.8 DR%.
Position, it must be admitted, is a relative term when applied to Smith the defender. He doesn't box out, instead relying on his athleticism to react faster than an in-position opponent can to a missed shot. It's that lack of anticipatory work that prevents Smith from being as effective a defender at the point of attack as he is when providing help. It's what keeps him (legitimately) off the All-Defensive Team. It's also what keeps him from being an attractive candidate for a second long contract.
Between his established preference to take jump shots despite ample evidence that the other team wants him take every damn one of them and his reliance on athleticism for essentially everything positive he does defensively, Smith is not a great candidate to age gracefully. What part of his on-court activity and demeanor indicates that he will adapt to the diminishing of his physical gifts? Even a willingness to completely change the way he approaches the game wouldn't guarantee success in an endeavor as difficult as completely changing the way he approaches the game. Josh Smith is the most Josh Smith player in the league. Could he ever be something else? Someone less different?
It's a bit of an intellectual exercise anyway. Because of the aforementioned organizational dysfunction, signing Josh Smith to another long-term contract appears impossible from either side of the negotiation. Because of the aforementioned organizational dysfunction and Smith's sui generis style of contribution to winning making him best appreciated and understood the more one is exposed to his play, his trade value, even coming off a career season, may not match his on-court value.
Considering that potential complication, the specter of Smith's age-related decline, and that the Hawks have, quite consciously, put themselves in a position where they are incapable of adding a quality player alongside Smith and Al Horford it's possible to argue with a straight face that the best course of action for the team would be to keep Smith for the final year of his current contract, hope Joe Johnson can remain above average (in the regular season, at least) for 12 more months, and make one more stumbling run toward hosting two second-round playoff games.
Barring the unlikely event of a run to the 2013 Eastern Conference Finals, the story of Josh Smith's time with his hometown team will be told in a series of questions asked: What if Josh Smith had channeled the things he needed to prove into the things he could do? What if the franchise hadn't invested so heavily for so long in a player so obviously inferior to Josh Smith? What if the franchise had invested in an experienced head coach in an attempt to get the most out of Josh Smith?
Only the first of those questions still has a chance of being answered in a satisfactory fashion. To know that answer would be worth losing the future rights to Smith for nothing. Not to know that answer, ever, would be the more fitting conclusion to the Josh Smith experience, simultaneously the most hopeful and frustrating aspect of the last eight seasons in Atlanta. Appreciation expressed through expectations, accepted by acts of defiance.