About 15 years ago, back when I was still a wide-eyed ball boy with the Boston Celtics, I learned the basketball definition of the word combustible. My education came during a relatively meaningless regular-season game in the mid 1990s between Boston and Seattle.
"Just run the play!" shouted Karl.
Payton shot back, "Why don't you come out here and run it yourself?"
Sitting behind the Seattle bench, I remember thinking to myself, How can these two coexist?
But they did. Swimmingly. In Payton's 12½ years with the Sonics -- seven of which were played under Karl -- Seattle won four division titles and went to the 1996 NBA Finals. Though Payton and Karl were never considered best of friends (Karl famously tried to convince management to trade Payton for
Why am I recounting this story? Because I
When you are writing a story about Smith, which I did last year for
The seemingly endless tug-of-war usually simmers quietly, only to be interrupted now and again when Smith explodes, as he did in April '07, when he directed a profanity-laced tirade at Woodson during a loss in Philadelphia. The Hawks suspended Smith for two games.
The latest butting of heads happened last Friday in Charlotte. After watching Smith fire up a few too many perimeter bombs in the first half, Woodson reportedly teed off on him, calling his shot selection selfish. When Smith said something back, the two got into a heated exchange that was serious enough to warrant Woodson benching Smith for the entire second half.
"I don't know," Hawks guard
When a head coach and a player as significant as Smith -- who is averaging 15.1 points, 7.1 rebounds and 1.6 blocks this season -- can't see eye-to-eye, and the team suffers. As a result, conventional wisdom says one of them has to go.
Last year many thought it would be Woodson, who was in the final season of his contract and inherited a new boss in longtime Seattle executive
Then, after a month of fruitless negotiating with Atlanta last summer, Smith thought he was moving on when Memphis signed him to a five-year, $58 million offer sheet. But the Hawks, who had already lost valuable reserve
Which brings us to today. The Hawks are still struggling to develop consistency with a young, talented roster. They have big wins, such as a 100-93 win over Utah on Wednesday that snapped the Jazz's 12-game winning streak. But they also have puzzling defeats, like last month's 24-point home loss to the Clippers. At 37-28, Atlanta is a virtual lock to make the playoffs for the second year in a row. But after starting the season 21-10, the Hawks are a pedestrian 16-18 through Wednesday, and barring a prolonged playoff run (read: out of the first round), either Woodson or Smith may have to go.
Which one could go isn't clear. Smith's age (23) and productivity make him tradable, which may appeal to the cash-strapped Hawks ownership group. According to court documents, the Hawks owners have lost $50 million the last two seasons and are currently embroiled in a prolonged legal battle with estranged part-owner
That makes Woodson the more likely target. Atlanta would be on the hook for the final year of Woodson's contract and budget limits would probably prevent the Hawks from flirting with some of the big names (