forward Josh Smith
is off to a slower start than usual amid trade chatter. (Sam Forencich/Getty Images)
By Ben Golliver
With two All-Star caliber players added this summer and a new coach hired this week, the Lakers are sure to be the subject of countless rumors between now and February's trade deadline.
ESPN.com reports that the Lakers have identified one free-agent to be as a possible target: Hawks forward Josh Smith, who would hypothetically be acquired in exchange for Lakers big man Pau Gasol.
Chatter about a Pau Gasol-to-Atlanta [trade] simply won't go away.
Sources say that the Hawks, at present, have no interest in parting with Josh Smith and Kyle Korver for Gasol. Or even Smith and lesser parts for Gasol. Positions can obviously change between now and the Feb. 21 trade deadline, but sources maintain that Atlanta has not been enticed in the least by the prospect of parting with the 26-year-old Smith -- even as he heads into unrestricted free agency -- for the 32-year-old Gasol. The Hawks, for the record, have also been telling interested teams that they value Smith and what he offers as a hybrid forward in an Eastern Conference that's generally been getting smaller.
It's likewise true, sources said, that the Lakers have had internal discussions for months about pursuing Smith, not only for his athletic gifts but also knowing that J-Smoove is one of free agent-to-be Dwight Howard's closest friends in the game. But if that's really who L.A. wants, there will have to be another team or two recruited into the deal to satisfy Atlanta's demands.
It's very difficult to imagine a direct deal between these two teams unfolding. More than basketball, the hang-up is financial and direction.
This summer, new Hawks GM Danny Ferry unloaded more than $104.9 million in future salary by trading Joe Johnson and Marvin Williams. His resulting strategy was very obvious: find good value players on short-term teams and set up a maximally flexible cap position heading into this summer, when only Al Horford and Lou Williams will have big dollar commitments on the books going forward.
Why tear it down simply to add a 32-year-old Gasol to the mix, especially when he is on the books for $19.3 million in 2013-14? And would it really make sense to commit a combined $31 million, more than half the salary cap, to a pair of post players in Gasol and Horford? Not really.
The new collective bargaining agreement is making massive contracts like Gasol's rarer. It's also forcing teams to operate in a more stringent environment to build around their star players. Gasol, still one of the league's better big men, is a few years removed from his peak and likely headed downward numbers-wise from here on out. His contract doesn't reflect that; his contract suggests he's a top-five player in the NBA.
That doesn't mean a trade here won't happen, it would just require an extra team that is willing to take on Gasol and has flexible assets -- expiring contracts, good value players, draft picks -- to satisfy the Hawks' plan. Indeed, if Ferry doesn't see Smith in his long-term plans, he would do well to move him at the deadline and let another team take care of Smith's next contract, somewhat like the Thunder approached their trade of James Harden earlier this fall. If Ferry has the choice between getting something good in February or potentially losing Smith, a fringe All-Star candidate, for nothing in free agency, that's an easy choice.
One final wrinkle is that neither player has gotten off to a good start. Gasol is averaging 14.0 points and 9.9 rebounds and shooting just 42.5 percent through nine games, well below his career scoring and shooting numbers. How Gasol adapts to new coach Mike D'Antoni's system will also draw scrutiny here over the next month or two. Smith, who has aired some unhappiness with the Hawks in the past, is averaging 15.6 points and 8.3 rebounds while shooting 41.3 percent through seven games. All of those numbers are down from last season. There's reason to believe that a change of scenery would benefit both players, but Ferry's goals and interests will likely dictate this process.