HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — They’ve grown up and become their own men, traveled very different paths over the course of the past decade or so. But just like they were 25 years ago, Josh Smith and Dwight Howard are shadowing each other.
When they were children, sharing space in the same southwest Atlanta preschool classroom, no one could have figured these lifelong friends would have their lives intertwine the way they have. And that includes everything from being local high school stars and eventually top five prospects in the prep class of 2004, first-round Draft picks (Howard first overall and Smith 17th) straight out of high school and now the top two players heading into the chaotic world that will be the free agent summer of 2013. (Los Angeles Clippers superstar point guard Chris Paul has reportedly bowed out of the NBA’s silly season by alerting teams that he will not entertain suitors and stay with the Clippers.)
Howard is the headliner, the object of affection of his current team, the Los Angeles Lakers, while also sitting atop the wish list of the Houston Rockets, Dallas Mavericks, Golden State Warriors and the hometown Hawks — Smith’s current team until 12:01 a.m. ET, when they both become unrestricted free agents.
But Smith is finally poised to emerge from the shadow of Howard and other contemporaries who have become All-Stars, franchise and maximum salary players elsewhere. One of the league’s most enigmatic and unique talents, he’s played every single second of his NBA career with the Hawks. Free agency, without restrictions this time around, is his first real opportunity to see exactly where he fits in the league.
And it couldn’t come at a better time for the only player in NBA history to have a career average over 15.0 points, 7.0 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 2.0 blocks and 1.0 steals. That’s right, the only player (go ahead and look it up, there is only one).
Even with his often spotty shot selection — he’s a career 47 percent shooter from the floor, 28 percent from beyond the 3-point line — Smith should be an analytics All-Star with all of the impressive metrics he’s piled up before his 28th birthday.
He and Howard are the only two players who have surpassed 1,200 points and 100 blocks four times in the past five seasons and Smith is the only player to have accomplished that feat in each of the past four seasons.
Smith joins four-time MVP and back-to-back Finals MVP LeBron James as the only players in the league to log 2,300-plus minutes in eight straight seasons, dating back to the 2005-06 season, showing off durability that has eluded so many for various reasons.
Sure, Howard will remain the top target for the teams that are the biggest players on the free agent market this summer. No other big man ranks where he does, even after his uneven performance for the Lakers this season. Smith, however, ranks right behind him on most of those lists.
But that’s where the connective tissue between them starts to fray. Howard will command a max contract (four years and $88 million on the open market, five years and $118 million were he to stay with the Lakers), while his former AAU teammate Smith is expected to fall into that next tier just below the max.
“I don’t know exactly what his value is to be honest with you,” said a Western Conference executive whose team will not be in the marquee free agent mix this summer. “His production is through the roof when you look strictly at his numbers. No one can argue that he’s a factor, a game changer, when he’s locked in and playing at a high level. He’s still got some rough edges that shouldn’t be there, but you also have to realize that he’s never played with an elite point guard or in an environment where there is some leadership, either in the locker room or beyond, that forced him to smooth out some of those rough edges. That’s part of what makes him so intriguing, even a decade into his career. You’re still not sure if he’s actually reached his ceiling. And in free agency, that’s worth something.”
Before Danny Ainge imploded his roster in Boston, the Celtics were ready to offer whatever it was going to take to get a sign-and-trade deal done with the Hawks, who according to sources have not resigned themselves to parting ways with Smith. He could be an extremely valuable asset in a sign-and-trade deal, but if the Hawks strike out in their pursuit of Howard, are other free agent bigs like Al Jefferson or Paul Millsap better fits with the Hawks?
The recruiting process this time around for Howard and Smith will also be very different. While Howard is reportedly set to entertain suitors in Los Angeles (with the Rockets up first, the Mavericks next and the Hawks, Golden State Warriors and the Lakers getting the last word), Smith will not go through any sort of public song and dance.
“That’s not his style,” said a source close to Smith. “Did you see how uncomfortable he was leading up to the trade deadline? He’s not interested in all of the hype. He wants the opportunity to sit back and evaluate his options and choose his next move wisely. That’s all.”
That could become an increasingly difficult proposition if Howard’s process doesn’t go according to plan. Howard has already said he will have his decision made by July 10, the day the league’s moratorium on players signing new deals ends. If Smith has to wait until then to know exactly what all of his options are, the chatter surrounding him is sure to intensify.
Of course, if a team presents the right package (the big contract along with an opportunity to win at a high level and a much-needed fresh start), Smith could have his decision wrapped up sooner rather than later … sooner than Howard.
“Don’t be surprised if some team comes out of the blue and makes a big play for [Smith] right away, while a bunch of teams are waiting on Dwight to figure out what it is he’s going to do,” said a league source with knowledge of the situation. “It’s free agency, you never know what might happen.”
Whatever happens, Smith and Howard will be linked together in the free agent summer of 2013, the same way they have been at nearly every other milestone moment of their lives.