The 2013 NBA season is over for the Atlanta Hawks, as they fell to the Indiana Pacers in six games and have thus faced elimination from the postseason. With nothing but the offseason ahead of the Hawks, there is one question on every mind in Atlanta.
What's next for unrestricted free agent-to-be Josh Smith?
During the Hawks' 81-73 loss during the season-ending Game 6, Smith finished with 14 points, nine rebounds, three assists, one block and a steal on 5-of-16 shooting. This was yet another well-rounded statistical performance from Smith, but one that fell short of expectations when it mattered most.
Nevertheless, he will enter free agency as one of the most sought-after players on the open market.
During the 2012-13 NBA regular season, Smith posted averages of 17.5 points, 8.4 rebounds, 4.2 assists, 1.8 blocks and 1.2 steals per game. According to Basketball-Reference.com, Smith was the only player in the NBA to average at least 15.0 points, 8.0 rebounds, 4.0 assists, 1.5 blocks and 1.0 steal simultaneously.
The only player.
Furthermore, Smith stands at 6'9" and 225 pounds, and he possesses elite-level athleticism. At 27, he's also entering his prime and appears to have a four-to-five-year deal worth of top-tier ability left within him.
So what's next for the mercurial Hawks star?
A Max Contract Player?
According to Jeff Schultz of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Josh Smith believes that he deserves a max contract. This has sent waves throughout the NBA community, as some have questioned whether or not he deserves to be paid in the same manner as the NBA's superstars.
If you ask Smith, there are no questions necessary:
I feel like I’m a max player. 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.
When you evaluate the numbers, it's hard to dispute.
During the upcoming period of free agency, Smith will join the likes of Chris Paul, Dwight Howard and Andre Iguodala as young stars seeking major deals. Smith will also be in competition with big men such as Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap and Andrew Bynum.
The question is simple—does he deserve to be paid like CP3 and D-12 inevitably will? Or is he a player whose salary depends on the fit, as Jefferson and Millsap appear to be?
Max contracts are no longer deals reserved for superstars, but instead players with upside. With Smith possessing elite abilities but lacking a sense of patience on the floor, it could come down to a team believing its coach can mold him into the superstar his abilities suggest.
Regardless of what he's paid, there's only one question to ask—who's going to pay him?
Future in Atlanta
Before we speculate which teams could lure Josh Smith away during the upcoming period of free agency, it's important that we start with his current squad. After all, the Atlanta Hawks can offer Smith the most money and the longest contract, as they hold his Bird rights.
According to Jeff Zillgitt of USA Today Sports, however, both Smith and Hawks general manager Danny Ferry are looking for a fresh start.
Zillgitt reports that it's, "highly unlikely" that Smith re-signs with the Hawks this summer. While he's taken a professional approach and listed the Hawks as a team he's considering, that's said to be a matter of public image more so than honesty.
After all, Smith is a native of College Park, Ga.
Chris Broussard of ESPN Insider (subscription required) added fuel to his fire, reporting in mid-February that Ferry will not re-sign Smith this summer. While Ferry has neither confirmed nor denied the report, it's clear that there is skepticism from both ends.
After Ferry cleaned house this past summer and shipped out franchise player Joe Johnson, it certainly seems as if Smith could be another offseason casualty.
Per the previously alluded to report via Jeff Zillgitt, the Atlanta Hawks fielded offers for Josh Smith at the 2013 NBA trade deadline. The teams interested included the Boston Celtics, Brooklyn Nets, Milwaukee Bucks, Phoenix Suns and Washington Wizards.
It's fair to assume that every one of those teams will at least gauge Smith's interest this upcoming summer, whether financially probable or not.
The truth of the matter is, any and every team can make a run at Smith if it can figure out the financial aspects of a deal. The true question, at this stage, is which teams can offer Smith the most attractive deals?
Teams such as the Celtics and Houston Rockets instantly come to mind.
Boston was interested at the 2013 NBA trade deadline but refused to let go of Paul Pierce to get the deal done. After experiencing a first-round exit, however, the Celtics could be in for an active offseason in which they make cap and roster space for a big-name free agent.
Smith certainly fits the bill, as the Celtics need an athletic big to protect the rim and run with Rajon Rondo in transition.
As for the Rockets, they have mountains of cap space and a superstar in James Harden to catch Smith's eye. As a team that works well in transition but lacks a dominant defender, Smith certainly fits the bill for what it's looking for.
Smith will have a wide variety of options this summer, but where he goes doesn't counter one well-known fact—J-Smoove will help shape the upcoming period of free agency.