ATLANTA -- Josh Smith walked into the Hawks locker room before the game, did a double-take at the swarm of media gathered specifically for him, reached for the volume on the sound system and turned up the noise. Or maybe, tuned out the noise.
If the Hawks were in the process of shipping him elsewhere on the eve of the trade deadline - and they've talked to a half-dozen serious teams -- he didn't want to hear about it. Not right then, anyway. "Been that way with me the last four years," he said. "That's how long my name's been mentioned. Nothing new."
Four years ago, however, Smith wasn't approaching free agency. And that's the major sticking point regarding players in his situation. It doesn't matter if they're an All-Star or, like Smith, a borderline case who can do a bit of everything. If a player lacks a contract for next season, that complicates everything.
Trading very good and great players on the last year of their deals involves lots of sacrifice, gambling and good luck in finding an interested party to negotiate with. In a sense, the Hawks are trying to find a team willing to make a reasonable trade and sign Smith next summer. Some teams can meet the former stipulation, some the latter. Not many can satisfy both. That's what the Hawks are up against. It's not so simple, not in this coupon-clipping climate in the NBA.
Yes, making matters more complicated is the salary cap and the restrictions set to kick in this summer. Those teams that sit precariously close to the luxury tax would only be willing to sign Smith to the major dollars he's seeking if he meets two criteria: He's the missing piece to a potential championship puzzle, or he'll boost attendance to sellouts.
And there's another wrinkle: Maybe the Hawks, after weighing trade offers, conclude they'd rather keep him and see what happens this summer.
A weird and uneasy atmosphere filled Philips Arena on Wednesday, in what could've been Smith's final game with the only NBA team he's ever known. Miami was in town and the biggest ovation was for LeBron James. The reception for Smith was polite but hardly of the please-don't-leave level. Clearly, people came to see the Heat, not Smith or the Hawks, which is one reason cited for why Atlanta is rarely on the radar for free agents. You don't see the same passion here as in Boston or Chicago or even Oklahoma City. The fans are divided in this town. Their favorites are the Heat, Knicks, Celtics, Lakers, Bulls and then the Hawks.
Smith had a typical game for him. He played decent defense on LeBron and did a little of everything. When Smith left the floor one rebound and an assist shy of a triple double, he removed his headband and handed it to a fan. That was the extent of his dramatic exit. He wasn't serenaded. He was hardly noticed.
Smith is a home-grown talent who has spent his entire eight-year NBA career with the Hawks. The team and city have lived through his growing pains and all the highs and lows. He has pouted, been suspended by his coaches and caused plenty of groans by hoisting three-pointers. He's also made game-winning plays, shown a variety of skills and been the most exciting Hawk since Dominique Wilkins.
"I'll always be indebted to the team," he said. "The organization gave me so much over the years. They gave me a chance to achieve my dreams so we'll just have to wait and see what happens. I hope I'm remembered for the hard work and passion I brought to the team. There's a lot of positives. But I understand it's a business. There's no love lost if I'm gone. If I'm here I'll compete hard for us to get into the playoffs."
Smith will seek a max contract or close enough. That would put him in the range of $17 million a season, a steep price for someone who's never been an All-Star but is only 27 with career averages of 18.8 points, 9.6 rebounds, four assists, two blocks and almost two steals. He'll get paid; the questions are how much and by whom.
Any team trading for Smith will almost certainly surrender negotiation strength next summer. They'll have to meet his price if only to justify giving up something to get him. That makes it tough for anyone who wants Smith. It's also tough for the Hawks, who can't demand much in return for a player who might sign with someone else.
"I don't have any impact on any decisions," Smith said, which isn't really true. If he gives a commitment to sign with the team that wants him, that makes a trade scenario much simpler.
Also, Smith hasn't gave any pledge to the Hawks, either, meaning Atlanta could risk losing him this summer without compensation, although Smith would leave almost $30 million on the table by going elsewhere.
Last spring the Blazers traded Gerald Wallace to the Nets because Deron Williams, a free agent, demand the Nets add talent. But Wallace was also approaching free agency. After the Nets gave a lottery pick to Portland (which became Damian Lillard, the front-runner for Rookie of the Year) they couldn't take a hardball approach to negotiations with Wallace. They had to give him four years and $40 million, a price he probably wouldn't get on the open market.
When he left the area Wednesday, Smith was still a Hawk. Which means Hawks GM Danny Ferry hadn't received a decent offer, at least not yet. Plenty of teams would love to have Smith. Not many can afford him. And fewer still can give the Hawks something decent in return.
That's the situation with Smith, perhaps the biggest name in trade discussions. He comes with a catch, a free agent complication. The Nets, Spurs and Bucks, all of whom have spoken to Ferry lately, will make a final pitch today. Oh, and there's another team willing and able to give Smith a home. That's the Hawks.