By Ben Golliver
The 2013 free agency period might still be more than five months away, but Hawks forward Josh Smith opened contract talks over the weekend.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports that Smith, set to become an unrestricted free agent next summer and regarded as one of the top players in this year's class, believes he should command a full max contract.
“I feel like I’m a max player,” Smith said Friday. And yes, that is the first time he has said that.
“I feel I bring a lot to the table. I have a lot of versatility. For what I do and what I give this ball club, I feel like I’m worth it.”
Smith again: “There shouldn’t be any hesitation. I’m Josh Smith, I’m not anybody else. I ‘m not Michael Jordan, I’m not LeBron James, I’m not Brook Lopez. I’m Josh Smith. You can’t look at what might’ve happened with another person. Let’s say Joe [Johnson]. You can’t say, ‘I’m skeptical of giving another person that’ because of whatever they feel like happened."
The paper pegs a max deal for Smith at $94 million over five years.
ESPN.com reported Sunday that Hawks GM Danny Ferry and Smith's representatives plan to discuss Smith's future this week.
Smith, 27, is averaging 16.8 points, 8.3 rebounds, 4.0 assists, 2.2 blocks and 1.3 steals per game this season. He's shooting 44.8 percent from the floor and his 17.4 PER, his lowest mark since 2008-09, currently ranks No. 74 in the league. While Smith has yet to make an All-Star team and will draw knocks until he retires for his poor shot selection, he did earn All-Defensive second-team recognition in 2010 and he has been a key starter during five consecutive playoff runs, three of which advanced out of the first round of the playoffs.
Less than two weeks ago, Smith was suspended briefly by the Hawks for conduct detrimental to the team after being thrown out of a practice by coach Larry Drew. His name has been persistently floated in trade rumors this season and the the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported back in March 2012 that Smith requested a trade because he didn't believe the organization was committed to winning a championship. CBSSports.com reported that Smith's agent stopped short of issuing a trade request following the recent suspension.
Since Smith's reported unhappiness last season, Ferry took the reins as GM and immediately began taking apart a high-priced roster piece-by-piece. He traded Joe Johnson to the Nets and Marvin Williams to the Jazz, taking back short-term salaries that leave him heading towards one of the most flexible salary cap positions in the league entering next summer. The only meaningful future commitments on the books are to Al Horford and Lou Williams.
The question facing Ferry is whether Smith is worth retaining at deep eight-figure levels or whether it's time to pursue a different path. Smith is generally regarded in the class of "very good but not great" fringe stars who represent a risky proposition at max or near-max dollars. The 2013 free agency class is fairly weak, especially if top names like Chris Paul, Dwight Howard and Andrew Bynum stick with their current teams. It's possible, if not likely, that Smith winds up being the biggest name to truly hit the market. Those conditions could easily spell big pay day. Over-paying to retain a key player is one of the easiest mistakes to make; Ferry's quick moves to ship out large salary commitments seem to suggest that he's not likely to fall into this particular trap. The writing on the wall has suggested a parting of ways between team and player was possible for some time: Smith has reportedly expressed frustration in the past, Ferry has no particular ties to him, the franchise seems headed in a different direction under its new management, and the Hawks' ceiling this season took a hit when Williams was lost to a season-ending injury. Under those conditions, Smith's public belief in his max worth feels a bit like he's forcing -- or at least nudging -- Ferry's hand in "pay up all the way, trade me, or I walk" fashion.