In 2009-10, Josh Smith arguably had the best year of his career, posting some really good numbers. Even though his scoring average, 15.7 points per game, wasn't his highest mark, Smith was playing a great well rounded game, and that showed in his PER, which was a career high 20.96. Maybe the most impressive aspect of Smith's game two years ago was the fact that he was more concerned with getting his teammates involved than past years. While Smith's turnover rate remained stagnant, Smith saw his assist rate jump up from 14.5 in 2008-09 to 24.8 in 2009-10.
The 2009-10 season may have been Smith's peak as his play dropped last year; his PER went from 21.0 to 19.2. A lot of people want to point to the return of Smith's three-point shot as the reason for the dip in performance, but that isn't really the case--Smith hit 33 percent of his attempts from downtown. That's not a great number, but that isn't a terrible number either. In fact, Smith's True Shooting Percentage (TS%) actually increased from 2009-10 to least year, going from 53.6 percent to 54.0 percent. The real problem in Smith's game this past season was the drop in his assist rate, as it went from 24.8 two years ago to 18.5 last year.
So what happened with Smith and his assist rate? He stopped having success passing out if isolation situations. As a passer, Smith was at his best two years ago, when his passes would result in his teammates scoring a point and half per possession while shooting 61.1 percent with an eFG% of 76.4 percent. One of the reasons why Smith was so successful passing out of isolation situations is that the Hawks would usually run sets involving cuts off of Smith as he worked with the basketball:
Whenever Smith was isolated with the basketball, the Hawks would be cutting off of him. Whether it was set plays or just something his teammates did (both happened in the Hawks' offense), the team seemed really concerned with providing him with options as his tried to isolate his man--almost as if they knew if they didn't Smith might get out of control and force something. The result was 31.6 percent of Smith's assists out of isolation going to a cutter.
Last season, the cutting off of Smith stopped, and so did the success rate passing out of isolation. Smith's teammates scored just 0.75 points per possession when Smith passed it to them out of isolation situations--half their 2009-10 rate. Maybe the biggest factor is that he wasn't hitting cutters, as just 25 percent of his assists went to players making cuts. The reason why Smith wasn't hitting cutters is that the cutters weren't there anymore:
Whenever Smith isolated last year, the movement off of the basketball from two years ago seemed to disappear. Nobody was cutting and the four other Hawks were standing around watching Smith try to create something and the result was more turnovers. Two years ago, Smith turned the ball over just 7.8 percent of the time when in isolation. This was because when Smith started to put himself in a tough position by overdribbling, a teammate would cut and provide him with a safety valve. With the Hawks' seemingly standing around more, when Smith would start to get himself in trouble, those safety valve's weren't there and he turned the ball over.
Josh Smith is one of the most dynamic players in the NBA because he can do a number of things. However, the Hawks need to understand that they need to make things easier for him on the offensive end by providing him with passing options, especially when he is isolating his man. It's interesting to note that Larry Drew's offense promised much more off ball movement than Mike Woodson. For the most part, he delivered on that promise, but for some reason when Josh Smith had the ball, that movement stopped.
Sebastian Pruiti is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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