The Atlanta Hawks are a perennial middle of the pack team. They are never in the conversation as one of the league's elite teams, and yet they maintain a consistent level of success that has continuously earned them decent playoff seeds in the Eastern Conference.
Other than this year when they posted an elite defensive mark during the regular season, their advanced metrics tend to be good but not great enough to put them in the conversation with the other contenders around the league.
This year figured to be a season in which the Hawks' incredible consistency finally came to an end. Their roster remained the same, but very early on in the year Atlanta's most efficient player, Al Horford, tore his pectoral muscle and has yet to return, and the Hawks best all-around player, Josh Smith, asked the front office to deal him away during trade season.
Luckily, the Hawks decided against trading away Smith, and it has paid off big time. Thanks to some great work from Larry Drew, the Hawks didn't falter without Horford and instead earned a Top Four seed in the Eastern Conference.
And unlike previous years when it seemed like the Hawks were just there for show, the way these playoffs have unfolded after just two days has presented Atlanta with a tremendous opportunity to exceed everyone's expectations.
The Boston Celtics, the Hawks' first round opponent, were without Ray Allen for Game 1 of the series, and he may not be able to return at all this year because of the severity of his ankle injury. And if that wasn't enough, Rajon Rondo's intentional chest bump on ref Mike Davis last night will likely land him a suspension, taking another one of Boston's best players off the floor.
Is Josh Smith one of the 30 best players in the NBA?
Additionally, the Chicago Bulls, believed by many to be a lock to make it to the Eastern Conference Finals, lost Derrick Rose in a tragic turn of events. Chicago should still get past Philadelphia, but now the Hawks would have a much easier path to the Conference Finals with Rose out—remember: Atlanta gave Chicago a very tough time last year when Rose was fully healthy.
With the stage set for an ever improbable run to the Eastern Conference Finals, one thing I can guarantee you will see from the Hawks during the postseason whether they make it that far or not is this: Josh Smith will emerge as a consensus Top 30 player in basketball this May.
Smith is already off to a good start in accomplishing that, posting 22 points, 18 rebounds, four assists and a block in Atlanta's Game 1 victory yesterday. Smith was extremely active in this game, flying all over the court to secure possessions for his team.
His work as a ball-handler was most impressive, as the Hawks went away from their criticized ISO-Joe (Johnson) and allowed Smith to do the creating, which works a bit better because it allows Johnson, a good spot-up shooter, to space the floor rather than Smith, a poor spot-up shooter.
With Smith possessing some point guard skills in a power forward's body it's nearly impossible for the defense to shut down all of his options, and his decision making down the stretch was fantastic.
The only criticism of Smith's game are his previously mentioned shooting woes. Only Kobe Bryant took more 16-23 foot jump shots this season according to Hoopdata, and Smith shot them at a below average rate. A good chunk of those shots were just bad decisions, but the majority of his missed mid-range jumpers are the function of the defense forcing him into that shot by corralling all other options.
It'd be optimal for Smith to use the open space to drive to the basket, but the paint is usually packed and the way block/charges are called into today's game make that a risky proposition for power finishers when the paint is packed. It'd be one thing if Smith was taking these shots off the dribble, but often times Smith is left wide open on the weak side of the floor with too much space not to shoot it.
If you can get past that flaw, you'll begin to fall in love with Smith's game. He's a great shot blocker that doesn't foul or give up offensive rebounds while collecting his rejections. He's a high flyer that will deliver some serious highlights in transition.
And he's got Lamar Odom-like abilities with the basketball in his hands that a 6'9" guy shouldn't have. Of power forwards that played more than 25 minutes per game this season, only Pau Gasol posted a better assist rate than Smith (Odom's 15.7 assist rate was right above Smith's 15.4 mark, but Odom only played 20 minutes per game this season).
For players that don't play in big markets to truly become stars in this league they need to be consistently dominant or make a run deep into the playoffs when there are more eyes than ever on the sport.
Smith has put the work in on both ends of the floor to earn the respect as a star, and with a couple of things breaking his team's way this postseason, Smith may finally have a canvas with which to paint the masterpiece of his game for the world to see.