Al Horford aroused admiration, Jeff Teague tantalized, Zaza Pachulia provoked passion, coaches and general managers drew criticism. Josh Smith, whom reports say agreed to a four-year, $56 million contract Saturday with the Detroit Pistons, inspired a powerful mix of admiration, tantalization, passion and criticism for a longer time and from deeper roots than any other Atlanta Hawk.
Let’s revisit Summer 2004. Hawks fans, unfamiliar as they were with the practical reality of their team making (and keeping) a good draft pick, can be forgiven for greeting the raw, hometown rookie with skepticism. It turns out the only thing grounding Smith’s otherwise storybook debut season in reality was that he spent his senior year at Oak Hill Academy, which prevented him from going directly from McEachern High School to Philips Arena.
Once on the court, he displayed his sui generis talent. He was immediately a great finisher and shot-blocker, an unpredictable dribbler, ambitious as a passer and in the passing lanes. He would try anything, and when something came off, Hawks fans knew hope again.
He became a starter five days after his 19th birthday. Two months later, he won the Slam Dunk Contest, forging the first successful connection of the lengthy, contemporary rebuilding project to the Dominique Wilkins-era Hawks. At 22, Smith was, at worst, the co-equal best player on the first Hawks team of the 21st century to make the playoffs. The next season, the Hawks won a playoff series for the first time in a decade. Smith scored 21 points on 12 shots in Game 7 against the Heat.
Shots. We have to talk about the jump shots. Over time during home games, it became a call and response. Smith would wind up from 20 feet, and the fans would bellow, “Noooo.”
Smith catches too much flak for taking more than 100 3-pointers a season and, well, not enough for the several hundred long two-point jumpers he takes every season, those less valuable shots that can escape notice due to the lack of their own column in the box score. Hawks fans bellowed “Noooo” to every jump shot not because they didn’t like or appreciate Josh Smith, but because they understood, in their brains and in their hearts, that Josh Smith shooting jump shots is a drag. It’s a drag both on the offense and his singularity. Anyone can miss jump shots. There’s only one Josh Smith.
Hawks fans know the following: Josh Smith can make just 35 percent of 731 two-point jumpers over two seasons, he can miss too many free throws, he can not box out and he will put on sour faces. The thing is -- through some combination of despite and because of all those things -- Josh Smith is, overall, a very good basketball player.
If he got too much credit for his help defense as a young player, he gets too little now for his improved on-ball defense, both on the perimeter and in the post, which has made him a universal defensive weapon. He is an excellent passer. He is an effective rebounder. He makes essentially all of the shots you want him to take. Pistons fans will get to know much, if not at all of this. About that, there is some jealousy.
Josh Smith is leaving the Hawks. Josh Smith is leaving Atlanta. Part of Atlanta goes with him -- the part that hoped for a happy ending to the story that began in 2004, one in which a truly unique, native Atlantan led the Hawks to the Conference finals or beyond. That’s not going to happen. The Josh Smith era is over.
Quite fairly, there will be those who reject this ending. Where some see flexibility and opportunity, others see uncertainty and what’s lost. I contend a happy ending is not lost forever. The opportunity remains for both the Atlanta Hawks and Josh Smith to succeed, to achieve through separation what they couldn’t quite together. It need not be either/or. It could be yes, and.