Forward Josh Smith of the surging Hawks is the latest player to realize that often the key to doing more is doing less
When Josh Smith was a boy, he would tag along when his father, Pete, drove his 18-wheeler up and down the northern corridor from his base in Smyrna, Ga., sometimes for weeks at a time. As the youngest boy of five kids, it was an opportunity for Josh to spend quality time with his dad, and he treasured it. Still, he soon determined that this truck-driving stuff wasn't so hard, and he let his dad know. So one day Pete found a big, empty cornfield, stepped onto the running board and told his 11-year-old son, "You say you can drive the truck, let's see it." And Josh did. "Pretty good, too," recalls Pete.
Another time, when he was about five, Josh announced he could swim, despite never having had a lesson. His mother, Paulette, didn't pay him any mind until, looking out the window one afternoon, she saw Josh jump into the family pool. Sure that her son was about to drown, Paulette, sprinted across the yard and leaped in after him, fully clothed. But no rescue was necessary; Josh was already swimming.
A similar phenomenon occurred in sports. Josh took up track and immediately became an elite sprinter. He began playing basketball in the fifth grade—after years of showing no interest—and was soon one of the Atlanta area's top talents. "Once you tell him he can't do something, he's going to try to prove you wrong," explains Pete. "He's always been that way."
March 21, 2010
So imagine how hard it was for Josh—now all grown up at 24 and producing All-Star numbers as a power forward for the Hawks, who are paying him $58 million—to finally admit that no matter how hard he tries, he can't shoot three-pointers.
Well, it's not that he can't. It's just that he isn't very good at it, though not for lack of trying. Drafted as a 19-year-old out of Oak Hill Academy in 2004, Smith launched with abandon after his rookie season. Three years ago he attempted 152 threes and made only 38 (25.0%). In the next two seasons he hoisted 99 and 87 (hitting 25.3% and 29.9%, respectively). Naturally, this frustrated Atlanta coach Mike Woodson to no end. Woodson's view: You're 6'9"; you've won an NBA Slam Dunk Contest; no one can stop you at the rim. So why the hell are you shooting threes? Smith's counter: Because I can hit them. Really, I can.
And so it went until this fall, when Smith showed up at training camp and, unprompted, announced he was done with three-balls—just like that, cold turkey. Teammates took a wait-and-see attitude. Hawks fans were downright skeptical. On a poll on one blog, Peachtree Hoops, 32% of the 175 respondents, when asked whether Smith's claim to halt three-point bombing was either A) a good thing or B) a bad thing, went with C) "He says he is going to quit. He is not going to quit."
Yet, as guard Joe Johnson says, "he's been a man of his word." Through Sunday, Smith had attempted only six threes, and most have been of the desperation-heave variety.
Instead, Smith is looking to make plays (his assist average is up to 4.2 from 2.5 last season), driving to the hoop (1.3 more attempts at the rim per game, according to Hoopdata.com) and crashing the offensive boards (2.7, up from 1.9). When he does spot up for jumpers now, he stays inside 19 feet, where he's more accurate (not to mention closer to the hoop closer for a rebound or shot-fake and drive).
It may seem like a minor change, but the effect has been profound. At week's end Smith was averaging 15.9 points and shooting 51.4%, the highest of his career, emerging as an increasingly valuable player on a team that has overtaken the Celtics for the third spot in the Eastern Conference. When he's on the floor, the Hawks, who were 42--23 through Sunday, are a whopping 15.2 points better per 100 possessions than when he's not. (With the All-Star Johnson, by comparison, the team is only 8.6 points better). Of course this increased proficiency is not due solely to his shooting discretion—as Woodson puts it, Smith is "starting to understand time, score and situation better," and he should make the All-Defensive team this year—but it's an important factor. "It's done wonders for us because it's keeping him around the basket, where he's more effective," says Johnson. "I think he's figured it out."
Yet when Smith talks about shooting threes, he sounds an awful lot like a recovering addict. "I just don't put myself in that situation where I'm tempted to do it, because I probably will," he said while sitting in his hotel room during a recent road trip. "If I find myself dangling around the perimeter, I'll move in a couple of steps." Making it even tougher is that most of his friends don't understand why he's on the wagon. "They tell me to shoot them because they know I can, they've seen me do it...." Smith trails off, stares through the TV, then continues. "I'm O.K., though. I just feel like it's not a need right now."
On the surface the rationale for Smith's transformation might seem simple—just stop doing what you're not good at—but it's not. First, NBA players are constantly asked to do more, not less, especially when they are as young and talented as Smith, who last year was second, behind LeBron James, in an SI player poll to name the league's best all-around athlete. Budding stars are urged to add elements to their game—think Garnett's jumper, Jordan's fadeaway—not subtract them. But in Smith's case he has defied conventional wisdom; by doing less he has become a more complete player.
Second, quitting is no easy feat. Charles Barkley was one of the greatest offensive rebounders ever, a dynamic post scorer who attacked the rim with the ferocity of a Bengal tiger on speed, and yet he couldn't help himself. Surely you remember the sight: Standing beyond the arc, sizing up his man, Chuck would chuck, and chuck, and chuck. (As he told SI's Jack McCallum in 1988, "Man, I love those threes.") However, Barkley's career percentage was 26.6%. In 1988--89 he launched 162 treys and connected on 21.6%; subtract the threes and he would have shot a sublime 63.6% from the field. Asked about Barkley's shot selection now, Jim Lynam, his coach with the 76ers, makes a case that "special players have a longer leash," and that "he wasn't a bad shooter, hitting, what, 30 percent?" Told it was substantially lower, Lynam reconsiders: "No, no, that's not a good percentage at all. You're right, he shouldn't have been shooting those. Next time I see Barkley, I'm going to remind him of that."
With Barkley and Smith it was obvious, but other times deciphering which part of his game a player needs to excise is impossible without peering deep into the numbers. Two good examples from this season are power forwards Chris Bosh of the Raptors and Zach Randolph of the Grizzlies. Both had a history of settling for midrange jumpers. This season, however, they have eschewed the in-between game to attack the hoop: Bosh has gone from 7.0 attempts per game in the post to 9.3 at week's end, and Randolph's average was up by 1.6 attempts. As a result both players have increased their field goal percentage and their and-ones. And, not coincidentally, both of their teams are winning more games.
The examples provided by Smith, Bosh and Randolph make sense at an intuitive level: Sometimes shooting less can help a team. Occasionally, however, this can lead to a mystifying condition when taken to an extreme. Call it the Mike Miller Syndrome.
If you were a casual fan and attended the Wizards' home game against Atlanta last Thursday, you could be forgiven for thinking you were about to see a star turn from Miller. After all, there he was on the cover of the program, with the headline MIKE MILLER IS READY TO SHOOT DOWN THE HAWKS. The 6'6" swingman is having a remarkable year. In NBA history only three players have finished a season shooting better than 50% from the field, 50% from outside the arc and 80% from the line (the players: Steve Kerr, Detlef Schrempf and Tim Legler). Going into Thursday's game, Miller was on pace to join them, shooting 53.4% from the field, 52.1% on threes and 82.5% from the line.
So naturally Miller came out gunning. At least for the first four minutes, that is. After hitting three of his first four shots, he didn't attempt another one until the fourth quarter. As usual, in the end he finished with fewer than 10 attempts—he's averaging 6.8 shots per game—which seems even more criminal considering that he's on a rebuilding team. This can't be explained away as just Miller's nature either; only three seasons ago in Memphis, Miller averaged 18.5 points while hoisting more than seven threes a game. So what gives?
Asked about it, Washington coach Flip Saunders sighs. "We try to get him to shoot, and he tries to come out looking for it," he says, "but if someone's open, he passes the ball." Saunders pauses, preparing to rationalize. "The thing is, he makes good plays, but if you're shooting as high a percentage as he is, you should be shooting more." As for Miller, he says things like, "Obviously I'd love to shoot more," and talks wistfully of his days with the Grizzlies. "Those were the best, man," he says. "We had Pau [Gasol] on the box, and they had to double him. It was a shooter's dream." Pressed on why he doesn't look for his offense more now, he says, "You try to think being unselfish is a domino effect, one of those things like taking charges that will catch on with the rest of the team." This is all well and good, but as Saunders says, "I just wish he'd shoot more."
So we are left with an interesting dichotomy. Both Mike Miller and Josh Smith believe they are helping their teams by doing less. It's just that only one of them is right.
The most remarkable thing about Smith's transformation may be that it happened at all, given his reputation for obstinacy. During his first five seasons he was known as a hothead, if not as downright uncoachable. Last season Smith was briefly suspended by the Hawks for cursing out Woodson.
Smith says the epiphany came last summer. He was watching film and realized "at this point in my career I'm not the best three-point shooter." Especially with a roster that includes marksmen like Johnson, Mike Bibby and Jamal Crawford, Smith concluded he was better off working on his post moves and midrange game.
What Smith doesn't mention is that when he was watching that video, it was at his dad's urging, the two sitting together in Josh's home theater. And, slowly, with Pete's voice in his ear, Josh began to better understand the game, piece by piece. After all, it was his dad who'd taught Smith how to shoot down at the rec center, telling him, "eye over elbow, hand in the cookie jar, never fall away." It was his dad who had Josh do dribbling drills on the carpeted cement floor of the family beauty salon, weaving around the chairs Pete had lined up (while customers were on hand, no less). Now here was his dad, whom Josh calls "a father and older brother in one," telling him it wasn't all about scoring. They talked about when to shoot, when to pass and, finally, where to shoot. "He came up with the idea to stop shooting threes," says Pete. "And I was really proud of him. I always tell him that I think basketball is an outward expression of your inner life. And I see him maturing as a man. He doesn't need to shoot those threes to prove anything to anyone. He's realizing that all you need to do is prove it to yourself."
The resulting change has been so drastic that Woodson, when asked whether he expects Smith to return to long-range launching, shakes his head and says, "I don't even entertain that anymore. He's so far removed from that, it's not even funny."
The only problem is, this isn't how Smith sees it. "Oh, I'll shoot threes again," he says when asked. "It could be next season or it could be a couple of years from now, but I'll start shooting them again once I've mastered the midrange game."
Though this sentiment surely gives Woodson chills—and not the good kind—it is at least conditional: once he's mastered the midrange. Who knows? By then it might even be a good shot. And if not, well at least he'll make Charles Barkley smile.
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When Smith talks about shooting threes, he sounds a lot like a recovering addict.