Atlanta Hawks Free Agent Watch: The Internal Options

Mandatory Credit: Paul Abell-USA TODAY Sports

After completing a multi-part “wish list” for the Atlanta Hawks summer, something critical occurred to me when trying to evaluate the full picture of the upcoming weeks.

What happens to Josh Smith and Jeff Teague?

Obviously, this is a huge concern, and frankly, it has been underplayed in most Hawks circles as free agency approaches on July 1st. Before we begin, there is one distinct difference in the plights of Smith and Teague, as Smith is an unrestricted free agent who is free to sign anywhere he chooses with no penalty, while Teague is a restricted FA, and thus, is under “control” by the Hawks, meaning that they can match any offer sheet that he signs. Without further ado, let’s take a look at each player, starting with the ultra-controversial Smith.

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It is no secret that Josh Smith isn’t my favorite basketball player. In fact, he is one of the more maddening players in recent Hawks history (to be kind), but it is important to not misunderstand what that means. “Maddening” is the best word for Smith instead of words like “bad” because Smith is one of the most talented players in the entire NBA. He can fill the lane on the fastbreak like a gazelle, block shots from the weak side like few forwards in NBA history, and score in wildly effective fashion around the rim. Doesn’t that sound like an incredible player? Exactly.

The issue with Smith has always been what goes on between his ears. On one hand, he is a fantastic passer at times, which would lead some people to believe that he has a high basketball IQ, because those two items in a player’s game are usually linked. On the other hand, Smith has one of the worst shot selections in the current NBA, and consistently displays an unfavorable disposition on the court, while being at least partially responsible for the outing of both Mike Woodson and Larry Drew.

For example, the aforementioned shot selection stems from Smith’s unwillingness to cease from taking both long 2-point jump shots and three-pointers. In 2012-2013, Josh Smith attempted 7.2 shots per game from 10+ feet, and only 5.2 shots within 3-feet (or “at the rim” according to HoopData). On the surface, this may not seem like a ridiculous disparity, but when you consider both Smith’s athleticism (and subsequent ability to get to the rim), and the percentages from each location, it becomes enlightening.

Smith shot a blistering 77% from the field on shots “at the rim” for the season. For reference, that percentage was good for a top-10 mark in the NBA among qualified players, and only Lebron James (the game’s best player) shot a better percentage on a comparable number of attempts. Translation? Josh Smith is insanely good around the rim.

On the flip side, however, Smith’s perimeter play has become legendary among diehard Hawks fans. His long 2-point attempts are the worst offense, as Smith attempted 3.9 shots from 16-23 feet on the season, and those shots resulted in horrendous results. Among the 47 qualified players who attempted 3.8-or-more shots from that distance, Smith ranked 46th in field-goal percentage (ahead of only Rudy Gay) at a laughable 33%. Amusingly, this performance was actually a significant improvement from 2011-2012, when Smith attempted the 4th-most shots in the league (6.3 per game!!!) from that distance while shooting just 37%.

With the realization that the last two paragraphs were incredibly stat-heavy, I will say this. Josh Smith’s basketball IQ is such where I believe that he will NEVER reach his full potential. This isn’t crazy analysis from me, as Smith will turn 28 years old in December, and with the amount of mileage on his body, he is, at best, in the middle of his prime, if not nearing the end of it.

What does it all mean? Well, it’s a simple formula for me. Smith has been vocal about seeking “max money” in the off-season, and I can’t blame him for that approach. With the amount of teams with cap space coupled with his on-court production (which is admittedly significant), it would be unrealistic to think that Smith would sign for anything less than he did during his last contract (5 years, $65 million). At that rate, he’s probably properly paid, but with the new regime in Atlanta, I can’t see Danny Ferry doling out that kind of money to run out a similar product.

In addition, I don’t see the “Spurs Model” that Mike Budenholzer and Ferry are implementing being a fit for Smith, and with the Horford/Smith combo presenting a unique/unfortunate size disadvantage at all times, there are long-term fit concerns. It isn’t out of the realm of possibility that Atlanta could strike out with other free agents and come crawling back to Smith, but I wouldn’t be willing to give him the exact same contract that he just completed, and I can’t see a scenario in which less than that would be enough to get the job done.

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For me, Jeff Teague is a much, much more intriguing case study. As mentioned above, Teague is a restricted free agent, and that puts the Hawks in an immense place of strength. Before we get to the strategy of that advantage, however, let’s take a look at Teague’s play on the court.

2012-2013 was, by far, the best season of Jeff Teague’s career. He had a very solid PER of 16.82, averaged 14.6 points and 7.2 assists per game (and 17.7 points with 8.8 assists per 40 minutes), and increased his usage significantly without losing much efficiency. In more advanced metrics, Teague ranked 16th in the league among point guards in both estimated wins added (EWA) with 7.6, and value added (VA) with 228.4.

There has been distinct improvement each and every season for Teague, but the big question remains. Where is his ceiling? Is he ever capable of becoming a top-10-to-12 point guard? Even with the improvement, Teague didn’t scratch the surface of the upper echelon of starting point guards, and frankly, the numbers suggest that he’s about as average as it gets among starters. While it isn’t imperative to have above-average players at every position, there are rumors that Teague could be in line for a Stephen Curry/Demar DeRozan-type contract in the 4 years, $40 million range, and those numbers are considerably higher than what Teague would be worth without additional improvement.

That is where the fact that Teague is a restricted free agent comes into play in a big way. It is no secret that the Hawks are going to put the full-court press on Chris Paul on July 1st, but after Paul, the point guard options aren’t special. The competition for Teague among point guards vying for the #2 spot is Brandon Jennings, Jarrett Jack, Jose Calderon, and Darren Collison. Now, read that list again.

On one hand, Teague looks much, much better when compared to that list, but on the other hand, his asking price could significantly rise on account of the NBA becoming a point guard’s league coupled with the lack of available options. Personally, I believe that Teague is the best player among that list (yes, including Jennings), and even if there are comparably desirable options for 2013-14, none of them (aside from Jennings) have the room to grow that Teague possesses.

Where does that put Danny Ferry? I would guess that Ferry and company would allow Teague to test the market, and as a result, they’ll eventually be forced to weigh an external offer sheet for the point guard. If Chris Paul can be lured to Atlanta, the Teague discussion becomes a moot point, but if Paul stays in LA or lands elsewhere, it will become very likely that Ferry would match any reasonable offer for Teague instead of going with an external patchwork option.

I firmly believe that Jeff Teague will improve over the next couple of seasons. With that said, I do not believe that he is a future top-10 point guard, and as such, it would be unwise for the Hawks to pay him as such. As is the case with many things in the off-season, it will be critical for the organization to weigh the market in conjunction with any deal for Teague.

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In the end, the internal options of Jeff Teague and Josh are just that: options. With the exception of the restricted tag on Teague, it is no more likely that the team will bring them back as it would be to sign any of the other upper-tier free agents. Danny Ferry is charged with filling a 12-to-15 man roster that currently has 4 contracted players, and that is a tall order in itself. At the very least, this summer should bring some “healthy” discussion in the Hawks community.

Topics: Atlanta Hawks, Jeff Teague, Josh Smith

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  • JDH

    Remind me again, what is the length on Horford’s contract. I’m not suggesting anything by the questions, just curious. If the office does come up with one of the two big names they are shooting for this July…pairing that person with Horford for a good length of time could be very beneficial for the team and ATL basketball interest as a whole.

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