Josh Smith's attitude may have more control over his future than his talent on the basketball court does.
As one of the most athletically gifted players in the game, Smith is a rare combination of offensively potent and defensively savvy. He's also one of the most openly volatile players in the league.
We're not talking about overly-emotional-on-the-court demonstrative, but suspension-prone-and-a-potential-locker-room-cancer capricious.
There's no denying that Smith's current averages of 16.8 points, 8.3 rebounds and 2.2 blocks per game are monstrous, but his persona is more than troubling.
Still more problematic is Smith's recent assertion (via Jeff Schultz of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution) that he believes he's a max-level player:
“I feel like I’m a max player,” Smith said Friday.
And yes, that is the first time he has said that.
“I feel I bring a lot to the table. I have a lot of versatility. For what I do and what I give this ball club, I feel like I’m worth it.”
But is he worth it?
The versatile forward has been engrossed in controversy for nearly a decade. If he's not instigating fights and being charged with technical fouls, he's being suspended or expressing a public disgust for the Hawks and his desire for leave.
We haven't forgotten about that last part, have we? Only last season, Smith was exhausted with the circumstances in Atlanta and attempted to escape. It took the departure of an overpaid Joe Johnson and the prospect of being "The Man" to render Smith content.
On the cusp of unrestricted free agency and again the center of trade rumors, Smith is no longer pleased. Once more, he's beginning to question the future of the organization and has showed no inclination he would like to be a part of it.
Where some expected to see loyalty, Smith has merely perpetuated the ambiguity surrounding his impending free agency. And (via Schultz), he's been no stranger to publicly chastising the franchise as he does so:
Until Friday, Smith had been saying the right things about his future in Atlanta. But now he seems less committal.
Asked if he had a preference, he responded: "No. I don’t know. I don’t have a preference for anything right now, except to try to make the playoffs."
The one game suspension Jan. 16 didn't sit well with him. But what upset him more was that word of Drew throwing him out of practice, following an argument, leaked out publicly.
"You have blowups and disagreements but in most championship-caliber organizations they keep it internal," he said. "They don’t try to broadcast a situation, as far as putting a player out there. That’s a problem."
Smith's mounting frustration with the way he has been treated has now reached a boiling point. And per Chris Broussard of ESPN.com, that "boiling point" has prompted the need for a sit down between the Hawks' general manager Danny Ferry and Smith's representatives.
Far be it from me to assume the "fly on the wall in that meeting" position, but it's safe to say no party emerges with an immediate or permanent resolution. Smith's future with the team, or any other faction, isn't going to be determined in that closed-door conversation. Hell, even if both sides did emerge from the gathering in good spirits, I still wouldn't buy into any good-natured conjecture.
Because whether Smith is traded or he finishes the season in Atlanta, he's going to explore his options. As we've already read, he fancies himself a star, and he's going to want to experience the satisfaction that comes with fending off desperate suitors with a stick.
But will he have that many suitors? Will they be waiting, eyes wide, mouths and checkbooks open? His potential impact is irrefutable, but are teams about to ignore his penchant for dramatics?
Well, to an extent, yes.
Smith's attitude isn't going to kill the interest that is shown in him. He's too talented and the effect he has on the game is too obvious. Right now, the Hawks score 1.9 points more per 100 possessions while allowing 3.5 fewer with him on the floor. Love him, hate him or look at him with indifference, it's impossible to downplay his importance.
Even in the midst of all this drama, head coach Larry Drew offers nothing but praise for his star forward (via Schultz):
Drew actually praised Smith, saying, "He's showing a level of leadership I haven’t seen before."
Of the argument, he said, "Josh is an emotional guy. We were losing and emotions were high. I was pretty testy that day as well.”
If his own team is about to ignore his transgressions, so will others. If he were that intolerable, Ferry would have shipped him out by now. But he hasn't, because Smith—to a point—is worth the trouble.
The problem in courting Smith then becomes his asking price. He considers himself a superstar and wants to be paid like one. And that's where the market around him could crumble.
Atlanta isn't going to give him the five-years and roughly $94 million he is eligible to receive. Not only have they been burned after offering a max contract before (sup, Joe-Joe?), but if the Hawks had that kind of faith in Smith, trading him wouldn't be an option.
And as potential trade and/or free agency suitors continue to devour every detail on the 27-year-old, trepidation will begin to emerge.
In an age where the CBA rules all, not only are teams reluctant to give anyone a max contract, but they're hesitant to invest big money in players who haven't proven they can win.
Smith imagines himself an All-Star, yet the Hawks haven't advanced beyond the second-round of the playoffs since he joined the league. If he's so special, why haven't they gone further? It's not like they haven't shelled out the cash to try and win (again, Joey J), so at least part of that failure can be attributed to Smith.
Are teams about to invest four- or five-years and nearly $100 million in a player who hasn't proven he can lead a contender? Better yet, are any of the bigger markets going to want to take a chance on Smith when he hasn't been able to function in a low-key setting like Atlanta?
Interest in Smith is going to be high this summer, and even leading up to the trade deadline, but that intrigue is going to be tempered courtesy of his tumultuous and often subordinate ways.
Will his demeanor scare teams off?
From giving him a max contract? Yes. Completely, though? Absolutely not.
The Hawks have willingly endured Smith's behavior in favor of what he can do on the hardwood, and so will a long list of other teams. Those willing to pay him beyond handsomely, however, won't read as long.
Which could be great for Smith's future.
Maybe that finite interest will tell him something. Perhaps conditional pursuits will enlighten him. Maybe his next contract negotiation will prove to be a humbling experience.
One that serves as wake-up call and propels Smith to evolve into the max player he already thinks he is.
But actually isn't.
*All stats used in this article were compiled from Basketball-Reference, Synergy Sports and 82games.com unless otherwise noted.