J osh Smith told Grantland just a few short weeks ago that he was as happy as he had ever been in the NBA. The Hawks were winning more than even optimists expected behind a surprisingly stingy defense, a dynamic front line led by Smith and Al Horford, some creative coaching, and chemistry Smith and others described as the very best they'd experienced. Most of the players, including Smith, are on expiring contracts, but the "get mine" selfishness that can infect that kind of situation hadn't surfaced.
The Hawks have since gone into a tailspin, with nine losses in their last 12 games. The offense has cratered, unable to produce enough free throws or shots at the rim. Smith has been part of that, enduring the worst overall shooting season of his career. He's still jacking the long jumpers that don't go in nearly enough, missing almost half his foul shots, and rebounding at a lower rate than in either of the past two seasons. Internally, things reached a low point with an incident at practice last Tuesday that resulted in a one-game suspension for Smith and an emergency meeting in which Smith's agent, per Ken Berger of CBS Sports, expressed serious concerns about the state of the Hawks, but stopped short of demanding a trade.
That hasn't stopped the chatter in league circles about what Atlanta might do with Smith as we approach the February 21 trade deadline. But there are mitigating factors against a Smith trade before the deadline, even after Friday's season-ending injury to Lou Williams — a key cog in most productive Atlanta lineups, and the team's only reliable generator of free throws. Williams's injury would seem to transform the Hawks into sellers, since it's hard to envision this group making a deep playoff run. But unless Andrew Bynum returns soon, the Hawks should still make the playoffs, and several Smith-related nuggets make a massive sell-off tricky:
• Smith's expiring contract. Teams are wary of trading real assets for a player who can walk after a few dozen games, even if by acquiring that player, such a team would gain his Larry Bird rights — the ability to offer that player a five-year deal with 7.5 percent annual raises, as opposed to the four-year/4.5 percent deals the other 29 teams could offer. The difference matters, though perhaps not as much as the league would like fans to believe. If Smith takes the cheaper deal with another team and then signs a rich subsequent contract, the difference in the two deals over five seasons would amount to something in the $4 million–to–$5 million range, depending on Smith's precise salary. That matters, and any player taking the four-year option risks having his skills erode before nailing down that fifth year that almost equalizes the contract paths. But it's not the same as the $20 million–plus gap the league routinely cites when it trumps incumbent-team advantage in free agency.
Smith is not eligible for an extend-and-trade scenario, and the new collective bargaining agreement makes those deals so unfavorable for players as to take them off the table anyway.
• His talent and friendship with Dwight Howard. It has been fashionable to suggest the Hawks could have something like $30 million in cap room this summer, but that isn't exactly true, and Smith is a big reason why. Like all outgoing free agents, he'll still count against Atlanta's cap number via an artificial charge linked to his most recent salary; that charge amounts to something like $16.5 million in Smith's case. Jeff Teague, a restricted free agent, will also carry such a charge, known as a cap hold. Even discounting all of Atlanta's other free agents, the Hawks will have something like $45.5 million on the books when free agency begins, once you factor in their first-round pick and small charges for empty roster spots. Assuming the cap jumps to about $60 million, that barely leaves enough room for a post–rookie deal max contract, let alone the mammoth $20 million salary for which Howard will be eligible next season.
In other words: Smith's cap hold could stand in the way of Atlanta being as big a player as it'd like to be. So dump him, right? Perhaps. But Smith and Howard, an Atlanta-area native, are famously tight, and the Hawks have amassed a pile of local players — Williams, Anthony Morrow — rival executives see as a clear attempt to lure Howard. That plan goes awry without Smith, even if it also requires the Hawks to trim salary somehow. By the same token, Atlanta has worked hard to carve out potential cap room, and they might not be willing to flip Smith for any player carrying a big salary beyond this season.
• A quirk in Smith's contract status/ego. This is Smith's ninth season. Players who hit free agency after their 10th season become eligible for the highest possible max contract, one that can soak up 35 percent of the salary cap — up from 30 percent for players at Smith's current experience level. Depending on Smith's sense of his market value, there might be some incentive for him to sign a one-year deal, and then hit free agency again right away. The difference could be quite large. A straight five-year max deal with Atlanta signed this summer would pay Smith about $98 million. A one-year/four-year max in the above scenario would pay about $105 million.
If you think Smith getting the max would be ridiculous, you're not alone; league executives view Smith as a very risky player unworthy of this kind of deal, especially since the Smith veteran max is much higher than the Roy Hibbert/Brook Lopez post–rookie deal max. But Smith could still stand to gain in this one-year/four-year structure even if you scale down salaries across the board to more reasonable levels — provided he can find a team willing to move even a little into that 30 percent–plus territory. Can he do that? Does he think he can do that? Would he bust it for all of 2012-13 on that one-year deal to make it happen, ditching the jumpers, minimizing the on-court pouting, actually boxing out for all his rebound chances, etc.?
The market has probably soured on Smith enough to take this super-max dream off the table. But it takes only one fool, and Smith and his agent might be confident in their ability to find that fool among more than a dozen teams flush with cap space this summer — and perhaps even more in July 2014.
With all those caveats out of the way, here's a quick-and-dirty look at some Smith trade candidates.
Teams Worth Watching
The easiest call on the board. Neither Patrick Patterson nor the slumping Marcus Morris have been able to seize the starting power forward spot, and Houston has about $7 million in cap space with which to work. That means Houston can absorb Smith's $13.2 million salary while sending out only about $6 million, making a deal much easier. Houston could build any number of deals around a couple of young guys (Terrence Jones, Donatas Motiejunas), a future first-round pick, and whatever Carlos Delfino/Cole Aldrich/Toney Douglas–size filler would be necessary. The Hawks would surely ask for Chandler Parsons, but Houston would not give up a legit NBA starter on an ultra-cheap contract for a soon-to-be free agent.
And that's the big issue here: Houston should have enough cap space to sign Smith outright in free agency this summer, especially if they make the playoffs and thus have to send their first-round pick to Atlanta (via the Nets). If the Rockets think they can do that despite lacking home-field/Bird rights advantage, why give up anything for Smith now? And that's not even factoring in the spacing issues that a bricky Jeremy Lin–Omer Asik–Smith trio would create around James Harden and Parsons. Smith would be a fun fit in Houston's fast-paced attack, though, and he's a plus defender for a team that needs another one up front.
The Bank of Cuban is open, and Smith has mentioned Dallas as a place he'd like to play. The problem: Dallas can pare down its payroll to about $42 million this summer, meaning they can open up room to sign Smith in free agency. That figure does not include cap holds for Darren Collison or O.J. Mayo, likely to decline his cheap player option, but it does include charges for their first-round pick (estimated here at no. 14) and empty roster spots. It also does not include Bernard James's non-guaranteed deal.
That precise figure is important. Even if the cap jumps to $60 million or $61 million, the Mavs as of now would not quite have enough room to fit Howard's maximum-eligible first-year salary (about $20.5 million). And if the Mavs want to bring back just one of Mayo/Collison at fair value, they might have trouble just fitting Smith.
It's unclear if they want Smith, anyway. Cuban has told me the Mavs like finding value in guys with checkered reputations, but Rick Carlisle has been unusually cranky this season, and Smith, despite his defensive prowess, isn't the Tyson Chandler–style rim-protecting center Dallas really needs next to Dirk Nowitzki. The Mavs do have some interesting pieces to offer, especially on the perimeter, and they'll explore more possibilities if they fall out of the playoff race.
The Suns, with about $6.2 million in cap room and lacking much in the way of defense or star power, could chase Smith on their own or work as a third-team facilitator for another club that wants Smith but must send out salary the Hawks won't touch. Phoenix also has an incentive to dump Michael Beasley, a poisonous player. Marcin Gortat stands as another trade chip who is simultaneously productive and a bit ornery in Phoenix. They also have a bundle of extra first-round picks via the Steve Nash deal, and another from Minnesota.
If the Hawks believe Smith is a goner and/or Howard isn't taking less money to come there, could Phoenix convince them with a package like: Gortat or Beasley plus a first-round pick, and expiring salary filler? That seems like a bad deal for Atlanta, but remember Smith's cap hold will vaporize a lot of potential cap room, and that salaries for both Gortat and Beasley are about $10 million lower than that cap hold.
But Phoenix brings the same problem as Houston: They could have enough cap room to offer Smith a max, or close to it, this summer, depending on how many first-round picks they end up with and where those picks fall. (They could have as many as three.) Why not sign Smith in July, using the good weather and top training staff as carrots?
It's also easy to construct a lot of semi-fanciful three- and four-team trades, using the cap room in Phoenix and Cleveland, that end with Smith or Gortat on an intriguing but capped-out contender such as Boston. But those deals require one of these cap room teams to do something reckless, like take on the long-term deals attached to at least one of Jason Terry, Courtney Lee, and Jeff Green. Good luck with that.
My favorite Cinderella destination for Smith, even if actually signing him to a long-term deal could leave these wheeling-and-dealing Nuggies capped out through 2015-16. The Nuggets have a three-man big rotation, and George Karl has trust issues with at least two of them — Kenneth Faried and JaVale McGee — due to defensive positioning issues. The third, Kosta Koufos, is the least dynamic among them, though he brings a certain defensive stability against the pick-and-roll. This doesn't matter as much as it might otherwise, since Karl is happy to roll with Danilo Gallinari (and now Wilson Chandler) at power forward in smaller lineups. But it matters against some brutish teams, especially when Karl tries to get away with Faried at center.
Denver is 25-18 despite an early-season schedule so hard it bordered on unfair. They have the eighth-best point differential, per 100 possessions, in the league. They are staring at a pile of home games going forward. A top-four seed is in reach for them with their current roster; can you imagine how dangerous they'd be if they added a competent two-way big man who can run?
The Nuggets have three other things going for them:
• Their front office is creative, and they consider everything; you can bet they've already run a lot of Smith scenarios.1
• They have two players in Chandler and Andre Iguodala whom they could trade for Smith and plausibly ask, "How much have we really lost?" Iguodala would obviously be a painful loss; he's by far Denver's best perimeter defender, and his ability to work as a secondary ball handler is huge in a system that stresses the fast break and multiple pick-and-rolls in the half-court. He is growing on Denver's coaches. But Denver has a ton of ball handlers already, and an Iggy-Smith exchange would be cap neutral for the Nuggets — not a team with an unlimited budget — in the near future. Chandler and Gallinari are very similar players; Denver doesn't really need both, though it's useful to have both around. The Hawks could save money in one sense with a Chandler/picks/cap-filler exchange, factoring in Smith's cap hold.
• Denver might not even care about keeping Smith for the long haul. Denver hates surrendering assets for nothing, so they could re-sign Smith with the intention of dealing him later (see: Nene). But if they can nab Smith for a player who is both non-essential and costly long-term, that alone might be worth the risk of losing Smith in free agency — if Denver believes Smith could make them a legit contender.
All the cost complications outlined above work against this. So does the fact that Denver has had a lot of roster turnover over the past two calendar years; they didn't really view themselves as contenders before the season started, and they were happy to watch the current roster grow. Why change course now?
Some Teams Just for Fun
Los Angeles Clippers
As the boss man might say, this is the team that has the Godfather offer in hand: Eric Bledsoe, Chauncey Billups, and Caron Butler. Let me shout this from the rooftops: This is almost certainly not going to happen, especially since the Clippers couldn't realistically have Smith, Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan, and Chris Paul all on the roster beyond this season. But it does make some fun theoretical sense. Here's why:
• The Clippers do not want to trade Bledsoe unless the deal clearly helps their title chances this season, and this is especially true now that Chris Paul is dealing with a knee bruise. Smith might be the kind of player that qualifies. The Clippers' bench has, of course, been phenomenal, and the Lamar Odom–Ronny Turiaf big-man combination has been a part of that. Odom has emerged as a potential crunch-time "center" alongside Griffin, since he can space the floor as a passer and actually hit free throws — unlike Jordan.
But Odom, even rejuvenated as a rebounder and defender, is an extraordinarily limited player. He still can't shoot at all; he's hit 38 percent overall, and he's an embarrassing 6-of-48 from 3-point range. He's also taken an Andris Biedrins–esque 16 free throws all season. Basically: Odom's only function on offense is to "space the floor" with his passing and hope opponents don't realize it's 2013, and not 2010, and that he can't shoot.
Turiaf is a nice energy guy, but he's limited and losing minutes to Grant Hill already. Jordan is a solid player and an impactful defender most nights, but he has cooled after a hot start on offense, and the lack of free throw shooting in the Griffin-Jordan pairing makes it dicey in close games.
Billups is clearly expendable in pure basketball terms, though likely not in reality; Paul lobbied hard for his return, and he's an extra coach beyond Vinny Del Negro and Del Negro's hair. Butler's 3-point shooting is valuable, and the Clippers have been going big on the wing lately — a move I like — by pairing two of the Butler–Matt Barnes–Hill trio next to a point guard and two bigs. But Hill is back and Barnes has been better than Butler in just about every aspect of the game.
Again: This move isn't happening, especially since the Clips will be reluctant to deal their prime trade asset (Bledsoe) for 25 games of any player. But it's an interesting win-this-year-at-all-costs move.
There's no reason for Atlanta to flip one big expiring contract for another attached to a far inferior player in Kris Humphries, especially since Brooklyn isn't exactly flush with prime sweeteners. MarShon Brooks is a back-of-the-rotation guy even under the friendlier P.J. Carlesimo regime, and the Nets don't have any more extra first-round picks to peddle.
New York Knicks
Smith for Amar'e Stoudemire? Just kidding. Amar'e is as close to untradable as it gets.
Los Angeles Lakers
Here's your obligatory Lakers mention, and your obligatory reminder they have no assets anyone wants right now, barring a massive Pau Gasol resurrection and a third team willing to help them.
San Antonio Spurs
The Spurs are plus-8.7 points per 100 possessions overall and a whopping plus-14.6 in 348 total minutes when Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter, their new frontcourt starters, are on the floor together, meaning San Antonio may have figured out its "second big man" issue — even though Matt Bonner and DeJuan Blair have basically fallen out of Gregg Popovich's rotation. Boris Diaw is playing efficiently off the bench, though with a bit of his annoying shot phobia, and the Spurs can shift Kawhi Leonard or Stephen Jackson to power forward in the right matchups against Oklahoma City and others.
In short: There's little need to shake things up by sending out Jackson's expiring deal, a first-round pick, and a young asset (Nando de Colo?) for Smith, despite the comedic possibilities of a Smith-Pop pairing. Leonard is almost untouchable, and certainly so when it comes to a volatile player such as Smith.
Indiana's salary structure is such that Danny Granger would have to be included, unless the Pacers could somehow construct a three- or four-team monstrosity involving a ton of mid-salaried role players moving all over the place. Such trades almost never happen. Granger's salary is actually smaller than Smith's cap hold, and though the Pacers need him, they probably need a third reliable big man more. Paul George has slid nicely to small forward, Lance Stephenson has emerged as a decent 2-guard with a handle, and the Pacers still struggle whenever Tyler Hansbrough and/or Ian Mahinmi enters the game.
Roy Hibbert is shooting 41 percent, logging just 28 minutes a night, and has found himself on the bench in crunch time more than once. In other words: It'd be easy to find 30-plus minutes for Smith, especially since he can play small forward for short stints in huge lineups.
Smith could also replace David West in Indiana's long-term plans. West will be an unrestricted free agent this summer, and he's 32 and playing on a rebuilt knee. But West has an old man game already, and he's Indiana's best all-around player and the undisputed locker-room leader of that team. Smith doesn't have nearly that kind of gravitas; when I spoke to George last week, he lobbied harder for West as an All-Star than for himself. Smith will also make more money in his next contract than West, and the Hawks, for their part, may be reluctant to take on the $14 million Granger is guaranteed next season.
In other words: Another intriguing deal that makes far more theoretical sense than real-life sense. It's hard, in fact, to find any Smith deal that makes sense for Atlanta or any potential suitor. The smart money probably says he'll stay in Atlanta. Though, if Houston grows restless, that could change.