Josh Smith: From Trade Bait To Team Leader
Even before All-Star center Al Horford went down for three to four months with a torn pectoral muscle the Atlanta Hawks were already facing an unsettling dilemma regarding one of their core players who has helped them reached the playoffs in four consecutive seasons.
Eighth-year forward Josh Smith reportedly entered training camp frustrated not only by the internal and external criticism of his play on the court but also with some aspects of team chemistry within Atlanta’s locker room.
This led to numerous trade rumors surfacing revolving Smith, which hypothesized that a change of scenery wouldn’t be a terrible idea for both parties.
For all of Smith’s talent, which oozes All-Star potential by the way, he’s also become one of the most polarizing figures on the Hawks’ roster. When things go wrong in Atlanta it’s not uncommon for Smith, not franchise player Joe Johnson, to receive the brunt of the criticism from the coaching staff and the team’s fan base.
Despite the early season talk of his unhappiness, the team’s 17-9 start to the campaign has seemingly put Smith in a better place mentally about the Hawks and his place within the organization’s framework.
“I’m feeling good,” Smith told HOOPSWORLD regarding his level of happiness. “I’m always stressing the fact I want to win and you know this rough stretch is definitely a challenging time for our team. But for the most part I feel good. I think that we’ll get out of this little rut that we’re in – hopefully.”
If there ever was a potential trade for Smith being seriously contemplated by the Hawks’ front office or a trade demand by the forward himself, center Jason Collins says he wasn’t buying it at all, chalking up that type of talk to being rumors or pure speculation.
Collins also noted from his viewpoint Smith has seemed happy in the locker room this season since the first day of training camp.
“It seems like every other day there’s something on either ESPN.com or HoopsHype,” Collins told HOOPSWORLD. “You just got to know we can only control what’s going on in this locker room. Coming into this year I’d say everyone on this team did a great job staying in shape and Josh Smith is at the top of that list of really working hard this past offseason. He put himself in the best possible position to help this team win.”
After winning four out of five games on the road to conclude the month of January, the Hawks began this month dropping three straight contests at home versus Memphis, Phoenix and Philadelphia before finally notching a win over Indiana at Philips Arena on Wednesday night.
As one of the Hawks’ team leaders, Smith has grown comfortable with openly challenging his teammates to step up their games and play tougher basketball on the floor, while stressing the need of becoming tighter as a unit away from the hardwood.
“We are going through a rough stretch that’s why we need to have guys who pull more close together as a team,” Smith said. “Guys have to step up and be ready to play. We need to get tougher in the paint. Everything has to evolve. We have to fight. We have to play with a certain sense of toughness.”
The same sentiment was echoed by Collins who refuses to allow any talk of the team’s struggles – past, present or future – to be rooted in excuse making.
“With it being a short season all teams are going to have to deal with adversity this year,” Collins said. “With us losing Al, we responded well when we had to take that long road trip but since we’ve come back [to Atlanta] we haven’t done a good job of defending our home court and we really need to. The mistakes we’ve made the past couple of games haven’t necessarily been what our opponents have done but what we are doing to ourselves. Just a lot of self-inflicted wounds.”
On one hand Smith expresses the need for tighter cohesion amongst his teammates and on the other Collins mentions overcoming adversity in the lockout-shortened season.
Often lost when evaluating the Hawks’ performance this season is the fact the team’s second unit underwent a total roster overhaul compared to the 2011 club.
Newcomers include veterans Tracy McGrady, Willie Green, Vladimir Radmanovic, Jerry Stackhouse and rookie Ivan Johnson. All of those players, with the exception of Stackhouse, have become regular rotation guys for head coach Larry Drew.
With the condensed season all but eliminating opportunities to practice the new additions have had to learn on the fly, but in Collins’ eyes each have adapted pretty well.
“That’s the toughest thing, not having the practice time,” Collins said. “But they’ve done a good job picking up the main [offensive] sets we run. We do a couple things differently defensively than a lot of other teams in the league so they’ve done a good job making the adjustment.”
If the Hawks are going to keep their three-year streak of reaching at least the second round of the playoffs alive, the happiness of Smith wearing an Atlanta uniform is going to be the one of the keys to success – especially with Horford out.
However the road doesn’t get any easier for the Hawks from here.
They’ll face Orlando, Miami and the Los Angeles Lakers over the next week, with games against Portland, Chicago, Orlando and a suddenly resurgent New York squad looming on the horizon later this month.
We’ll find out a lot about the Hawks during the month of February and ultimately Smith’s true level of true happiness in Atlanta.