By the end of last season, the criticism had started to become too much for Josh Smith.
When something went wrong, he got blamed. When the Hawks lost, he got blamed. Certainly, any time he did something silly and made one of those pouty, lower-lip-touches-the-tip-of-the-nose boo-boo faces, the city’s basketball fans held their nose in disgust and screamed, “Feh!”
At some point, it all figured to be too much for the hometown kid – and now it is.
Smith wants out of the Hawks. Out of Atlanta. I don’t blame him. I wrote a column following last season’s playoff exit that it might be best if the two parties went in opposite directions, and that was meant less as criticism of Smith than it was a read of the unhealthy situation. It was clear how he and those in his camp felt about the situation.
Our Michael Cunningham reports that, while external criticism of Smith has significantly diminished this season, the forward wants a fresh start with a new team, and he has let the Hawks know of his desire to be dealt before the NBA’s March 15 trade deadline.
The irony here is that Smith has had the best season of his career. He has averaged 17 points, almost 10 rebounds, 3.5 assists and two blocks. When center Al Horford went down early this season, Smith stepped up and took on a bigger role. When guard Joe Johnson went down, Smith went on to carry this team.
Is Smith great every night? No. But what we’ve witnessed this season is a smarter, far more mature and polished player than at any time in his eight-year career. When training camp opened following the league’s lockout, Smith showed up 25 pounds lighter, wearing a smile and having a seemingly new perspective on things.
He denied that criticism ever prompted him to ask for a trade in the offseason, but cracked that at times he was tempted to “get lost. Punch the GPS a few times.”
“I’ve been here a long time,” Smith continued. “I’ve never lashed out at the organization. All I ask for sometimes is, when I raise my hand, maybe somebody can help me up, so I’m not always the person who’s trying to [defend me from criticism]. It would be nice if somebody else said, ‘This guy’s a pretty good player.’”
He certainly has shown that this season. Now he wants out. Figures.
How does this look if you’re the Hawks?
The kid from College Park doesn’t want to play for the hometown team. Dwight Howard, an Atlanta native, doesn’t want to play here, either.
It’s one thing when hockey players from Russia (Ilya Kovalchuk) and Slovakia (Marian Hossa) want out. But two guys who grew up playing pickup games on the city’s black tops?
Neither Smith nor Howard have a problem with Atlanta itself. It’s more about perceptions of the franchise and the ownership. As players move on in their career, winning titles becomes more important. Smith wants to play for a franchise more committed to winning a championship — or at least one that leaves the impression it knows what it takes to get there.
The Hawks have been an undersized team with Horford as their center, but their inability to make significant roster fixes can be traced directly to ownership’s decision to give Johnson a $123.7 million contract.
Smith has been the Hawks’ best player this season. He got jobbed in All-Star game selection twice — first when Eastern Conference coaches picked reserves, then when commissioner David Stern inexplicably chose the suspended Rajon Rondo over Smith to replace the injured Johnson. Smith apparently holds the Hawks at least partially responsible, believing the organization didn’t do enough to promote his candidacy.
My guess is that perceptions of the younger, immature, underachieving Smith still linger with some and had more to do with his exclusion. But Smith has been a treasure to watch for most of this season. Now he wants out. It was easy to see coming.
By Jeff Schultz