By Chris Mannix
March 12, 2009

"They both arrived here in 2004. It hasn't been a marriage. It's been a pie fight."

-- Atlanta Journal-Constitution, on the relationship between Josh Smith and Mike Woodson

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. Gary Payton, the Sonics' mercurial point guard, had just freelanced a play on the offensive end that resulted in a Seattle turnover. As Payton brought the ball up the court on the next possession, then Sonics coach George Karl took the opportunity to bark at him from the sidelines.

"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 Mookie Blaylock in '95) there was an underlying respect that enabled their relationship to be successful. Karl has credited Payton for making him into an elite coach and Payton has conceded that he probably wouldn't have developed into one of the NBA's top point guards without Karl as his coach.

Why am I recounting this story? Because I don't think that respect exists between Josh Smith and Mike Woodson.

When you are writing a story about Smith, which I did last year for Sports Illustrated, you have to delve into his relationship with Woodson. The two are at constant odds over Smith's role in the offense; Woodson believes Smith is most effective playing around the rim, using his superior athleticism to create second chance opportunities and get easy baskets. A Shawn Marion-type, if you will. Smith fancies himself as more of a traditional scorer, one with three-point range. Take a peek at Woodson's face next time Smith launches an errant three and you will get a good idea what he thinks of that.

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 Joe Johnson said after the game. "I think we all need to get on the same page. But it's kind of tough to play when the chemistry is not there, and we're not playing as one."

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 Rick Sund, who was hired as the team's general manager last May. But a tough (and entertaining) seven-game series with Boston ignited an apathetic Atlanta fan base, essentially forcing Sund's hand and earning Woodson a two-year extension.

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 Josh Childress to Europe a few weeks earlier, quickly matched the offer.

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 Steve Belkin. If the team hopes to find the money to re-sign point guard Mike Bibby, it may encourage Sund to send Smith packing in return for shorter contracts or to a team like Memphis, which has the cap space to absorb him outright. But trading Smith would not only take a jackhammer to the Hawks' rebuilding project, but also would alienate the fans. Attendance, which has been growing the past three years, would almost certainly suffer.

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 (Flip Saunders, Eddie Jordan, Avery Johnson) on the market. But bringing in a new coach would be an opportunity for Sund to put his stamp on the team. And if Sund feels the relationship between Woodson and Smith is beyond repair or that the constant battling is hindering the team's progress, such an opportunity might be difficult for the GM to pass up.

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