Teams generally fall into one of three categories at the trade deadline: 1) buyers; 2) sellers; or 3) “Wait, there’s a trade deadline? That’s today?”
The difficulty in categorizing the Hawks as we approach Thursday’s NBA trade deadline is that it really doesn’t matter how they view themselves because they have only one player of significance that other teams want — and he’s probably not available.
Josh Smith wants out. That was reaffirmed publicly recently, even if behind the scenes it wasn’t news. He has wanted out all season.
The only thing that really has changed is why Smith wants out. Before, he wasn’t happy that he was viewed as the weak support beam seemingly every time the Hawks crumbled. Now it’s more about needing a new start, wanting to play for a true title contender, his perceptions of the way the Hawks have dealt with him in negotiations (contrasting with teammates), a general lack of appreciation.
Here’s the Hawks’ dilemma: Those no-no-Josh-don’t-do-that moments are few and far between now. His game has matured. His head has matured. He has morphed, dare we suggest, into the team’s strongest support beam. He’s playing three different positions for the Hawks, who are 24-17 despite playing without Al Horford for most of the entire season, Joe Johnson for six games, Kirk Hinrich for 18. (Smith and Jeff Teague are the team’s only two players who’ve played in every game.)
So what kind of message would it send if the Hawks dealt their best and most popular player six weeks before the playoffs? And do you really want to see Smith, an Atlanta kid, go elsewhere right now and see him potentially flourish with a title contender?
There’s little reason to believe Smith will re-sign with the Hawks at the end of his contract. But he has a year remaining on his deal. So the Hawks know they can always trade him after the season when more teams are willing to restructure their rosters (and payroll).
If the door to Smith is closed, there’s little motivation for other general managers to phone Hawks general manager Rick Sund right now.
Sund acknowledged Tuesday he is having “ongoing discussions” with other teams. Not surprisingly, he didn’t get specific (”I never publicly discuss teams or players”) or context (”It’s a great time to have dialogue, even if it’s for something you might do [after the season].”)
If there’s no player other teams want or can get, there’s no possibility for the Hawks to make a trade of significance. Consider their non-Smith assets:
• Johnson: He should be the Hawks’ best player, but he’s viewed mostly as an anchor on the payroll. Contenders would love him as a second scoring option, but no other team would be willing to take on his contract. Remainder after this season: four years, $89.2 million. Honest.
• Horford: Even being undersized and with flaws in his game on offense, Horford is a great piece, and the Hawks figured to take a dip without him. Other teams would love him — but not injured. Any trade for next season can be made after this one.
• Marvin Williams: He has first-string talent and a second-string heart. Then there’s his contract: two more years totaling $15.7 million. (Technically, the second year is a player option, but Williams isn’t dumb — he’ll trigger it).
• Teague, Hinrich, Zaza Pachulia: All are serviceable players. But the Hawks wouldn’t get a difference-maker in return for any of them.
That’s it. The Hawks are stuck.
Given Smith’s play this season and the level of resiliency the team has shown despite injuries, the Hawks would’ve been an interesting team to watch in the playoffs at full strength. But they’re not built for greatness now and, Smith’s pleas notwithstanding, an earth-shaking deal from Sund isn’t likely.
The Hawks don’t feel any pressure to move their best player right now. This week’s deadline is not their deadline.
By Jeff Schultz