For Josh Smith and Dwight Howard, preschool pals who rose from their Atlanta upbringings to NBA stardom, the innocence of the game has long since been lost.
Basketball is a business, they have learned, a multi-billion dollar venture where there's a price to be paid for their lavish lifestyle and fame. The scrutiny is part of it now, as is the speculation. And this week, of course, it's all about the suspense.
The lifelong friends are the cream of the trade deadline crop, their talents available to any team able and willing to do a worthy deal between now and Thursday's 3 p.m. ET deadline. Howard's longstanding trade request still holds, but it remains to be seen if he actually leaves Orlando. Smith's situation in Atlanta has recently resurfaced, as he reportedly told the Hawks he would like to be moved and sources say the request is being considered.
Both players are in their eighth season with the same team, their careers defined by playoff successes but never the championship ring that they covet. They see a change of scenery as a possible solution and want the chance to grow elsewhere. Another shared experience, it seems, could be coming soon. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported on Thursday that Smith requested a trade. Smith -- the All-Star snub who is averaging 17.4 points, 9.6 rebounds, two blocks and 1.5 steals for the 24-17 Hawks - didn't deny it in a chat with SI.com Sunday night.
"You know, nobody's been traded [recently], and that's very rare at the trade deadline, so they have to talk some stuff up," said Smith, who is slated to earn $12.4 million this season and $13.2 million in 2012-13. "Me personally, if I were to say something directly about getting traded, I would obviously be getting fined by the NBA, so I'm just playing.
"I think people on the outside looking in see that there might be some more growth to me somewhere in another place. I've been with this team so long. It's kind of rare, so they probably feel like maybe if they talk about it it'll get a team involved or thinking about giving me away. But as long as I'm here, I'm going to put my best foot forward and not worry about anything else other than winning basketball games with this organization and this team. ... If it happens, it happens. I'm not worried about it. No hard feelings to anybody. I'm just here. And as long as I'm here, I'm going to put my best foot forward."
While Smith and Howard speak frequently, they last met face to face over in Orlando on Feb. 9 before the Hawks downed the Magic in overtime the next night. Howard, Smith said, was conflicted about his decision.
Those in communication with the Magic's situation continue to predict that Howard won't be traded. Despite his list of trade destinations including the Nets, Lakers and Mavericks, sources close to Howard reiterated that the Nets are the only real threat via trade unless the Lakers can do some 11th-hour convincing.
But New Jersey's assets haven't been enough to get a deal done for months, meaning a trade involving more than the two teams is likely needed. Howard has told people close to him that he doesn't want to join the Lakers, while trade options aren't there for Dallas.
Should the Magic hold onto him with the hopes that he stays, Howard could still play out the final year on his contract, worth $19.5 million. He is hoping to take the most lucrative path, as he can sign a five-year deal with 7.5 percent raises with the team that has him at season's end versus signing a four-year deal with 4.5 percent raises elsewhere. That's a contract worth $109.2 million total versus $81.1 million.
"He's definitely up in the air and confused about what he wants to do," Smith said. "I think right now he wants to win basketball games, and he wants that nucleus around him.
"It is very frustrating when you want to win so bad and you want to get a certain type of DNA around you and your team and it's not happening. It gets frustrating, and you might say some things that you don't mean."
Beyond Howard's own desires, Smith said his friend is struggling with the idea that Magic fans everywhere would turn on him if he leaves.
"He's definitely conscious of what everybody else thinks," Smith said. "He's the type of player, no matter where he plays, that if he leaves that organization they're going to hate him. It's just like how [Cleveland fans] hate LeBron [James]. But at the end of the day, they'll come around to forgive him for whatever they felt like he did to betray him. But I think that he just needs to worry about, and pray on, what he can do to make himself happy and his family as well as everybody around him."
The relative silence continued on Sunday, when league executives were in far less a frenzy than normal this close to the March 15 deadline.
It has everything to do with the lockout-shortened season, as the top decision-makers aren't used to having to multi-task quite this much this time of year. College conference tournaments commanded their attention over the weekend, and the widespread sense was that business wouldn't be booming until Monday.
If it booms at all, that is.
But the big men continued to offer the most intrigue around the league, including a recent addition to the group of players known to be available in Milwaukee center Andrew Bogut. Players wearing walking boots don't typically enter these types of discussions, but it's apropos that any team considering a Bogut deal would have to do so while he's out of commission.
The seven-year veteran and former No. 1 pick fractured his left ankle on Jan. 25 and is expected to miss at least another month, this after averaging just 66 games in his first six seasons. The temptation for interested executives is simple: Talented centers are at a premium these days, and Bogut's many injuries -- while unfortunate -- have been circumstantial as opposed to chronic (a la the Trail Blazers' Greg Oden). As was first reported by the Bay Area News Group, sources told SI.com that Golden State's interest is very real.
While the Warriors are still hoping to shock the basketball world by landing Howard in a rental deal, they would love to land the Australian, who has averaged 12.7 points and 9.3 rebounds for his career. Sources confirmed that the Wizards also inquired, but the talks went nowhere. The Rockets -- who are also willing to rent Howard in its pursuit of a big-time, big man -- are not believed to be in the mix.
A source close to the Bucks said they are doubtful that now is the time to get maximum value for the injured Bogut, meaning any and all suitors will have to make a strong push to do a deal. Bogut is owed a combined $27 million for the next two seasons, and -- as was reported by ESPN.com -- Milwaukee is indeed looking to unload the contracts of either Stephen Jackson (one season remaining at $10.1 million) or Drew Gooden (three seasons remaining for a combined $20.1 million) in any Bogut trade. For all the justified talk of Bogut's career being forever affected by his many ailments, the Bucks appear ready to move past this disappointing chapter either now or perhaps this summer. Bogut's presence has led to just one winning season since he was taken first overall in 2005 -- the ill-fated 2009-10 campaign when Bogut broke his right hand, sprained his wrist and dislocated his elbow with just six games to go in the regular season and never returned. Milwaukee fell to Atlanta in seven games in the first round of the playoffs without Bogut.
Bogut isn't the Bucks' only core player who could be on his way out of town.
Sources said Milwaukee has made third-year point guard Brandon Jennings available "for the right price," as one executive who has spoken to the Bucks put it. Jennings, who was drafted 10th overall in 2009 and has been considered the team's future franchise player, irked Bucks officials with his comments to ESPN.com in early February about a possible departure.
"I'm going to keep my options open, knowing that the time is coming up,'' he wrote in an e-mail to the Web site. "I'm doing my homework on big-market teams."
The comments made little sense considering the Bucks have most of the control over Jennings' future. Even if he declined an extension offer this summer, Jennings would be a restricted free agent in the summer of 2013 so long as Milwaukee issued the qualifying offer. Jennings could be an unrestricted free agent in 2014 if he signed the qualifying offer.
While it's not known whether the Kings (14-27) have fielded calls regarding Tyreke Evans, it's safe to say the third-year player's long-term future with the team is uncertain.
The 2009-10 Rookie of the Year is no longer considered the centerpiece of the Kings' new core, with that distinction clearly belonging to second-year center DeMarcus Cousins. Evans is eligible for an extension this summer but it's looking unlikely to be offered unless he shows major improvement.
His poor outside shooting remains an issue, and Evans' role changed drastically last month when he was moved from the point guard spot to small forward. Coach Keith Smart is using him as a point forward at times, a move that was inspired both by the poor play of veteran small forward John Salmons and the surprisingly good play of rookie point guard Isaiah Thomas. But the 6-foot-6 Evans is struggling with the adjustment, in large part because he isn't used to playing off the ball so frequently or not having a significant size advantage over his counterpart. The presence of guard Marcus Thornton has changed matters, too, as he is leading the team in shots per game at 15.5 (to Evans' 15.2 and Cousins' 14.2).
Evans, who has one season remaining on his rookie contract and could be a restricted free agent next summer, simply doesn't shine like he did in his debut. And if the Kings are convinced that Evans is likely gone after next season, they might be willing to move him for someone who can help expedite this slowest of rebuilding efforts.
The negotiations continue between small forward/restricted free agent Wilson Chandler and the Nuggets, but there should be resolution soon. Chandler's agent, Chris Luchey, said via text message that his client will likely sit out the rest of the season or play overseas if a deal can't be done in "five days or less." Chandler and Luchey are in Denver to continue discussing the matter with Nuggets GM Masai Ujiri.
"Wilson and I saw that [the Nuggets] had nine [home] games in a row and we decided to make this last push at a deal, come in town, negotiate for five days or less, and see if we can come to an agreement before he prepares for either sitting until July or going to Italy or [another] Europe locale," Luchey wrote.
Ujiri, according to Luchey, is unwilling to do a deal for the remainder of the season because Chandler would then become an unrestricted free agent. He remains restricted if he doesn't play in the NBA this season, which allows the Nuggets to match any offer sheet that comes his way in July. By not signing a long-term deal now and restarting negotiations in July, Chandler could be looking at a much more lucrative contract because more teams would have cap room and be willing to spend come the summer.
It's come to this for the defending champion Dallas Mavericks: nine losses in 12 games, the last three coming against the dregs of the Pacific Division in Phoenix, Sacramento and Golden State. And now Dirk Nowitzki, the Finals MVP whose production is down significantly from his magical season in 2010-11, is admitting that he isn't sure whether his frayed team will find its way again.
"You never know," he said after Friday's loss to the Kings when asked if this team could recover in time for a title defense. "Did you [think we could] last year? I don't think you did. You never know. You never know. I still think Lamar [Odom] is going to come around. I think Vince [Carter] is going to come around after the break [between Saturday's game at Golden State and Tuesday's home game against Washington].
"If we just all start playing better and get some stops, I still think we're right there with anybody. Even if we haven't played well, we should've beat Oklahoma City again last week; we lost by basically the last possession. So I don't really see a team in the West that's really that intimidating to anybody."
That's been Nowitzki's favorite refrain this season, but the Mavs need to worry about the bottom-tier playoff contenders before focusing on teams like the Thunder. With a win over the Clippers on Sunday night that was their third in the last four tries, the Warriors moved within three games of Dallas for the eighth and final playoff spot. Phoenix, Utah, Portland and Minnesota are all within two games of the Mavericks in the standings.
Jason Terry, who has been with Dallas since 2004, has been as frustrated as anyone in what is clearly a tense Dallas locker room.
"Every game is big for us," he said. "We know where we are in the standings. The games are coming so quick. It's an accelerated pace, but if you don't pull together you're not going to win, and that's what we're not doing right now.
"It's on the veterans that have been here, who have been down this road, to kind of pull everybody together and get this thing done. It ain't happening right now."
Terry, the 2009 Sixth Man of the Year, even advocated for a trade of some sort to spark the Mavericks masses.
"I would [make a move], but again I'm not management; I'm not ownership," he said. "They're going to do what they're going to do. They've got to figure it out."
• Portland is expected to be active this week, but don't expect any deals involving fourth-year small forward Nicolas Batum. Batum will be a restricted free agent this summer, and a source with knowledge of the team's thinking said the Blazers remain determined to keep him. It's not certain, though, as the reported distance between the two sides during failed extension negotiations in January will have to be bridged at some point.
• Look for the Rockets to have a busy week as well, with free-agents-to-be Courtney Lee, Chase Budinger, Jonny Flynn and Terrence Williams among those who would likely welcome a trade. Because Houston has been so deliberate about clearing salary cap space for this summer, most of its young players aren't considered part of the team's future and would prefer to go be elsewhere in the months leading up to free agency. Point guard Goran Dragic is not expected to be re-signed this summer and could also be on the move.
As for the team's core, shooting guard Kevin Martin and forward Luis Scola -- who were nearly traded to NBA-owned Hornets in the Chris Paul deal with the Lakers that was vetoed by the commissioner David Stern -- remain in the mix for possible deals for Howard or Lakers forward Pau Gasol. Martin is hardly helping his trade stock, as he has averaged just 6.5 points in the last four games while averaging just 17.5 minutes in the last three games. Martin's scoring has dipped from 23.5 points per game in 2010-11 to 17.1 this season, while his Player Efficiency Rating has nose-dived, from 21.4 to 16.9. He is shooting just 41.3 percent from the field and 34.7 percent from three-point range.