Keep your eyes on Josh Smith during the postseason, because his play could dramatically affect his future.
And barring a miracle run through the Eastern Conference playoffs, it will indeed draw to an untimely close. Even if the Hawks somehow get by the Indiana Pacers in the opening round, it's tough to envision this overmatched squad making it through the rest of the postseason gauntlet.
That gives Smith a limited slate of games to prove his value. Given Indiana's Game 1 shellacking of the Hawks, it appears rather likely that Smoove will finish with between four and seven outings in his 2013 postseason resume.
If his sprained right ankle hinders him in any way, that already closing window grows a bit closer to being slammed shut.
Regardless of what he does during the rest of the Hawks' postseason run, Smoove is probably going to be a max-contract player. After max deals were handed out to Eric Gordon and Roy Hibbert during the 2012 offseason, it almost seems like a foregone conclusion.
Smith may be frustrating, but he's an uber-talented forward with a coveted set of skills: His athleticism is off the charts, he can run the floor far more effectively than most bigs and his defense is rather formidable when he commits himself on that end of the court.
He's also only 27 years old, leaving him squarely in the midst of his athletic prime.
The Oak Hill product's body and talents are conducive to earning heaps of money, even if the space between his ears often seems to hold him back.
Smith is already a rich man, thanks to the checks he's cashed with the Hawks, but he's going to rake in the dollars even more during the upcoming offseason. Given the relative dearth of marquee 4s who will be free to pick and choose their next location come summer time, Smith is a near lock for a max contract.
At the very least, he'll be getting more than $15 million per year
More relevant than his future salary, though, is whether or not he spends the next portion of his career playing home games in Philips Arena.
Where Smith and the Hawks Stand
Smith, who perennially finds himself on the list of All-Star snubs, has seemed to be present in trade rumors for years now. This past deadline was no different, but rumored deals involving plenty of different players simply never came to fruition.
You can see my real-time thoughts from that hectic period below:
I'm just glad I don't have to start yelling "NOOOOO!!!" at Monta Ellis instead of Josh Smith.— Adam Fromal (@fromal09) February 21, 2013
The status quo survived, and the long-time Hawk remained just that: a Hawk.
However, now that Smith's free agency is looming in the not-so-distant horizon, the rumors haven't just withered away into nothingness. Instead, they've persisted throughout the second half of the 2012-13 campaign.
Mere hours after the trade dudline—sorry, corny but true—came and passed, USA Today's Jeff Zillgitt reported that it was "highly unlikely" Smith would re-sign with Atlanta. Of course, he received that information from an anonymous source, so take it for what it's worth.
Just under a month later, it was Fox Sports' Sam Amico breaking the news on Josh:
"In free agency news, word is the Hawks’ first priority will be to keep unrestricted free agents Josh Smith and Kyle Korver during the off-season. If it proves too costly, the Hawks will shop one (or both) in a sign-and-trade."
Atlanta will always mean a lot to Smith. He grew up in the city, does charity work there and truly seems to feel at home within the friendly confines of I-285. His hometown will certainly have an impact on his decision, but ultimately, free-agency deals are business transactions.
From both Smith and Ferry's perspectives, money is going to matter, and so too will the fit with the team.
The Situation Going into the Offseason
As soon as Danny Ferry settled into what I assume must be a comfy chair in his office, the first thing he did was start converting the Atlanta Hawks into Al Horford and Team Expiring Contract (h/t Grantland's Zach Lowe).
Within an extremely short time frame, Ferry dealt Joe Johnson and his unspeakable yearly salary to the Brooklyn Nets for a bevy of role players and...wait for it...expiring contracts. Then he did the same with Marvin Williams and the Utah Jazz.
In no time at all, the general manager had masterfully freed up tons of cap space for his first full offseason in charge of the team.
Now, the Hawks have so few players signed for the 2013-14 season that you can literally count them on one hand: Al Horford, Lou Williams, DeShawn Stevenson, Mike Scott and John Jenkins. Seriously. That's it.
Per Spotrac.com, that handful of players is on the books for $21,513,022 in 2013. Again, that's it.
Josh Smith, Devin Harris, Zaza Pachulia, Kyle Korver, Johan Petro, Dahntay Jones, Anthony Tolliver and Shelvin Mack are all unrestricted free agents. Ivan Johnson and Jeff Teague join them in the free-agency pool, but they're both of the restricted variety.
A lot will depend on the direction Ferry wants to go, but the general buzz around Atlanta is that the fanbase would like to build around the Teague-Horford duo. That would require signing the Wake Forest product to a much more exorbitant contract than his current one, though, and re-signing both Teague and Smith might be out of the financially responsible realm of possibilities.
Of course, there are the exceptions, such as those who would rather corral a few more years of Smith's athleticism. Yet, the majority of Atlanta fans I've talked to seem to prefer the point guard to the forward. You can include me in Camp Teague as well.
@fromal09 I'll go with Teague, but I'm not a Hawks fan.I like his playstyle— Tyler Brooke (@T_Brookey) April 24, 2013
Then again, this could all change with a few legendary postseason performances. Or even solid ones, for that matter.
What the Playoffs Can Change
The biggest knock on Smoove has always been his penchant for the long two-pointers. Somehow, someway, the forward who excels around the basket has convinced himself that he's best served hoisting up shots from the perimeter.
How many players inspire negative reactions when they make jumpers?
If you go to a Hawks game at the Highlight Factory, you'll hear a series of crowd noises whenever he lets fly from outside of the paint.
First, you hear a disappointed murmur as he rises up into the air. Then you hear a groan. There might be a cheer if he rips the ball through the net, but there will still be groans mixed in, because a make means that he's probably going to keep firing away instead of planting his backside closer to the basket.
Take a look at his shot chart from the regular season, courtesy of NBA.com:
Do you see how the only green section is right around the rim? How about the ridiculously low percentages around the perimeter coupled with the high number of attempts?
That's a textbook example of not always playing to your strengths, and I apologize for forcing such an ugly image into your consciousness. Trust me, I wish I could un-see it too.
Changing this is the only way that Smith can successfully reshape his image in a short time.
He must prove to both Hawks fans and Ferry that he can take over a game in the most beneficial way possible. If Smith starts attacking the rim with relentless fury, makes plays instead of shot attempts when he receives the ball out near the three-point arc and gives Atlanta a better shot at beating the Pacers, he'll prove his value.
Admittedly, the sample size will be small, but any step in the right direction during the most crucial stretch of the season can pay large dividends.
The dynamic power forward didn't exactly get off to a good start in Game 1, a contest that wasn't nearly as close as the final 17-point margin indicates:
Again, he was far too fond of taking jumpers out on the perimeter. In the loss, Smith took seven shots from inside the paint, making five of them. Once he ventured outside into the more neutral-colored area of the court, he was a putrid 2-of-8.
Why he thought it was beneficial to take more attempts from outside the paint than inside is just beyond me.
Throughout the remaining portion of Atlanta's postseason, Smith is going to find himself in plenty of situations that mirror this one. He hasn't given opponents a reason to respect his jumper, so they don't need to bother closing out any further.
During this play—which you join in medias res, right after Smith received a desperation pass from Devin Harris, who was falling out of bounds—the forward chose to shoot. The result, much to the chagrin of Atlanta fans, was a clang of the iron.
If he drives instead, the Indiana defense is forced to collapse, and he has a number of options.
Kyle Korver is standing in the corner, Jeff Teague at the top of the key and Al Horford in the mid-range location he's so deadly from. Driving affords Smith the opportunity to use his superior finishing skills or his above-average distributing ones to create a higher percentage play.
Now, let's take a look at Smith doing what Larry Drew should be constantly drilling into his head.
With the same five-man lineup out on the court, Smith posts up David West, waiting for the entry pass.
Once he receives it and faces up, he's in a nearly identical situation to the previous play from the first quarter. Harris is now cutting across the court instead of recovering while out of bounds, but Smith is still faced with the shoot-pass-or-drive dilemma.
This time, he chooses correctly.
With his back to the basket, Smith is able to push West back into the paint, and he eventually finishes the play with a pretty left-handed hook shot that drops through the net for two points. Once he's established himself closer to the basket, the options are diverse, and they're all more positive than a Smoove jumper that isn't exactly smooth.
As a whole, Drew's offensive system with the Hawks is fairly bland. It consists primarily of pick-and-rolls at the top of the key with a few isolation plays mixed in. All the while, the shooters run curls and expect the ball if they get open.
It's not exactly a system built to maximize Smith's talents, which makes it all the more imperative that he milk every possession for its greatest possible value.
If you're in charge of the Atlanta Hawks, would you bring back Josh Smith?
If we see Smith settle for jumpers, the Hawks will have virtually no shot of advancing, and the forward's days in red and blue will be limited. As has been the case for a few years, there's no certainty when dealing with Smith's future, but each shot he takes from the outside is digging him a deeper and deeper hole.
This summer is bound to be a monumentally important time in the headband-wearing, shot-blocking potential-superstar's life. How he handles the rest of the postseason will inevitably have a large impact.
As the hypothetical version of Hamlet who rooted for the Atlanta Hawks might say: To shoot or not to shoot, that is the question.
In Smith's case, that interrogative sentence might be the answer to his impending free-agency question as well.