Oh, no, not because he didn’t deserve it. Heavens, no. You see, I, unlike the coaches, apparently, have some notion of common sense. So I’m aware that he should be starting at All-Star Weekend.
But the denial of Smith could lead to better things for his career, and the avoidance of things which have doomed others that have come before him.
When we talk about motivation, we talk about leadership, determination, heart, all those things. You know what’s underrated? Spite. And I’m not talking venemous, “screw you, you don’t think I can? I’ll destroy you!” spite, or as I like to call it, “being Michael Jordan.” A simple point at which people tell you you can’t do something, and it brings reflection. That self-examination that’s often missing, especially from athletes. You draw up into yourself. And the things that you find there are what’s important. Most likely, Smith’s evolution as one of the most dominant forces in the game (and if you don’t think that’s true, you’re not paying close enough attention, but we’ll get there) has come without any such self-examination, simply through coaching and maturity. But it certainly seems like part of his identity. After all, all the things that have happened for him this season have come not from him opening up, but bottling up. Ducking his head down and driving to the post, using his body to hit layups off the glass instead of settling for jumpers. And, one of the funnest memes of the season, his avoidance of the three point shot. You have to be self-aware to make those adjustments to your game.
Being denied the All-Star game, especially when his partner in time, Al Horford, is going, is a pretty big slap in the face. All his hard work has been invalidated, because apparently Paul Pierce limping around the floor or Derrick Rose drifting 18 footers is more important for the spirit of the game. (No offense to Rose, from a “keeping the positions equal distribution” standpoint he’s a great pick.) I blame the coaches on this one. Should AI be playing? No. We all know that. Some are more okay with him playing than others. But that’s what happens when you have a system that gives the fans power like that, which is fine. The coaches should know better. Regardless, how Smith handles this could end up being a defining moment in a defining season for him.
He could respond to this denial with indifference. Keep his nose to the grindstone, his man boxed out, and his game simple, aggressive, and patient. Or he could respond with spite, in a bad way. He could say “You know what? I did everything they said I should do, and I’m still not getting credit. Screw it. BOMBS AWAY!” He could revert back to old habits, lose his defensive focus, drift away from the tough spots, and take his game back a notch. But from all indications, that’s not what’s going to be happening. Instead, he’ll respond with the positive spite. “I know what I’m doing is what I should be doing, but they haven’t noticed. So I guess I’m going to have to show everyone that they were wrong.”
This is kin to Jordan, but not quite the same, because there’s not the obsessive venom that follows Jordan. I’m not sure if Smith’s personality, from what we know about him, lends itself to that approach. But history is filled with people overcoming adversity based simply on a desire to prove people wrong. Smith has an opportunity to take his game a step further without damaging the relatively fragile makeup of the Hawks’ offense, and by extension, be the singular player that takes them further than they’ve managed to do before.
There’s a perfect storm shaping up on the horizon. Boston’s up tonight, likely cranky and motivated after a last second loss to the Magic last night. The Celtics are vulnerable, tonight and this season. Even if the Hawks can’t overcome the C’s based on their frustration, the Hawks have already run out three wins on them. The Hawks know, 100% that they can beat this team in the playoffs. They know it. You can sense that when they’re on the floor. When they met two years ago, it was a “Hey, let’s see what happens” feeling. Now there’s a confidence that they’re simply more athletic, faster, younger, and better. The Magic have dominated Atlanta this season and the Cavs have squeaked by them, but I don’t think you can look at either team as a paragon of invincibility. There’s room in the playoffs for the Hawks to do damage. Screw up the entire system. But Smith’s going to have to be the difference maker. Not free-agent-to-be Joe Johnson, as much as I love the guy. Smith. It’s Smith’s play that inspires the Hawks, now. He’s the one chasing down rebounds, throwing the outlet pass and finishing on the break. He’s the one making smart defensive plays to go along with the 12-foot-jump blocks. It’s Josh Smith and his spite of showing everyone why they were wrong about him being an All-Star that could make the Hawks a force in the Eastern Conference and force what would be our fifth realignment of power structure in as many years.
“Told ya’ so” is a powerful weapon. Here’s hoping Josh Smith is smart enough to know how to use it.
UPDATE: Coco in the comments points out that Smith’s said on his blog: “This WILL be my motivation for the rest of the season.” So Smith, or at least his handlers, seem to be in line with this thinking.
*Props to Corn for the video suggestion