HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — In legal quarters they call it “irreconcilable differences,” the basis for granting dissolution in no-fault divorce states.
Neither Josh Smith nor anyone in the Atlanta Hawks’ front office is willing to publicly admit that their relationship has moved into the realm of “irretrievable,” but some of us recognize the obvious. It’s time for a clean break for both sides.
Smith was tossed out of practice Tuesday, fined and then suspended for Wednesday’s home game against the Brooklyn Nets for conduct detrimental to the team. Smith was suspended by the team earlier in his career for a similar transgression, when he lit into then-Hawks coach and current Knicks coach Mike Woodson, so his critics will surely point to the fact that he has a history of acting out this way.
Sure, he made a statement apologizing and articulating all of the right things:
“Clearly I am competitive and was frustrated by our recent losses,” Smith said in a statement released by the team. “I understand and respect the team’s actions and just want to get back on the court to do whatever is necessary to help my teammates. I apologize for letting them down and apologize to our fans for not being available for tonight’s game.”
But it still doesn’t resolve the lingering issue that has been there from the day this hastily arranged marriage between the enigmatic hometown kid and the beleaguered franchise was consummated on Draft night 2004.
Smith wasn’t supposed to last until the 17th pick that year. But his stock plummeted on the eve of the Draft based on whispers at workouts that he didn’t show up with the best attitude and energy in some places. We all remember what happened on Draft night, when ESPN analyst Jay Bilas smashed him before he could pull that Hawks hat down tight over his head.
Nearly nine years later, Smith has done plenty to prove his doubters wrong. At 27, he’s become one of the most versatile and productive power forwards in the league, a player with All-Star credentials who has never actually made an All-Star team. We could debate the reasons for that another time, say next week when he probably misses out again despite leading his team in scoring (16.5) and blocks (2.3) while also averaging 8.3 rebounds and 3.7 assists.
His production isn’t the issue. Everything else is. Instead of being a fan favorite, no player sends a more divisive shiver through the Philips Arena crowd than Smith does. The fans don’t agree with his preferred playing style and they’re not afraid to let the world know about it. Any shot of his from outside 12 feet is usually accompanied by a collective groan at the building some like to refer to as the “Highlight Factory.”
A fixture in trade rumors since his second season in the league, Smith, a free agent at season’s end, finds himself smack in the middle of those trade crosshairs once again. His representatives insist that he is not interested in forcing a trade by the Feb. 21 trade deadline. “I want to be clear that I’m not pushing a trade,” Wallace Prather told Ken Berger of CBSSports.com. “This is not a trade request or anything, but there are frustrations in Atlanta.”
Smith is never going to turn his back on his hometown. He’s never going to come out and proclaim his desire to play elsewhere. And no general manager the Hawks have employed, from Billy Knight (who drafted Smith) to Rick Sund (who refused to come up with a contract for Smith and eventually matched a $58 million offer sheet from the Memphis Grizzlies to keep him in the fold) to current boss Danny Ferry has exhibited any desire in meeting the Smith camp halfway in NBA divorce court.
The Hawks have All-Star big man Al Horford to work with, as well as standout guards in Lou Williams and Jeff Teague. They have a decision to make about the future of coach Larry Drew, whose cause Smith championed when no other Hawks player did when Woodson’s contract wasn’t renewed, as well. The Hawks can take all of the cap space they’ve accumulated and rebuild with or without Smith.
Smith is still young enough to start over somewhere else and continue to play in his prime, working as a productive piece for a playoff team in a city that doesn’t possess the inherent pitfalls of his beloved hometown.
Both sides need a fresh start. That much is obvious to us all.
Now, who has the courage to admit it by Feb. 21?