By Rob Mahoney
The big shocker of the NBA trade deadline was easily the Hawks' decision to stick with Josh Smith, whose departure from Atlanta had been a foregone conclusion heading into Thursday. It seemed incredibly likely that between Milwaukee, Houston, Brooklyn, Boston and the various other teams linked to Smith via trade rumors, Atlanta GM Danny Ferry could find some palatable offer that could get the Hawks a return on a star player that doesn't fit into the team's plans moving forward. Ferry made his desire to refresh the roster abundantly clear when he traded away Joe Johnson for a mess of expiring contracts last summer. This was and is a team in transition, and committing a huge chunk of money (and cap space) to a talent as frustrating as Smith would run counter to all that Ferry has done at the helm for the Hawks thus far.
Smith may not be an ideal piece for a max salary (he'll reportedly seek one this summer), but he's a terrific talent and an incredibly versatile player. He could easily have helped any number of teams as a rental, while also providing them with the means to re-sign him for the long haul via Bird rights if they were so inclined. No one suitor seemed dead-set on acquiring Smith, but the sheer numbers (and the Hawks' very clear incentive to move him) made a deal seem probable, if not imminent.
Yet trade talks rose and fell throughout the week and throughout deadline day, eventually ending without a deal. The one star-level player on the block didn't even pack his bags, as Ferry shut down offer after offer from those in pursuit of Smith's tantalizing potential. Ferry apparently had no intention whatsoever of compromising his trade return standards, though we have little way of knowing if that's due to an underwhelming market or Ferry being a picky negotiator. Regardless, the offers made were apparently so inadequate that the Hawks saw fit to keep a player who they almost certainly won't retain beyond this season. And valuable though it may be to assert one's will and refuse coercion at the trade deadline buzzer, it's hard not to see this as a missed opportunity for an Atlanta team anxious for a fresh start.
The Hawks weren't likely to get the key to their future in exchange for a few months of Smith's services, but picks and decent prospects seemed well within the team's grasp. And really, with only three players (Al Horford, Louis Williams, John Jenkins) on guaranteed contracts next season (four, if you include the likely re-signed Jeff Teague), that's exactly what Atlanta needed -- cheap filler capable of providing minutes without clogging up the team's cap space in the process. Whatever the next step for Atlanta might be, we can be assured that this cap room will play a crucial part in the reconstruction process. Trading Smith for affordable spare parts would be a convenient way to preserve that flexibility, all while continuing to build toward the team's new goals.