Atlanta Hawks Must Trade Josh Smith Before He Bolts Team in Offseason

Stephen Babb@@StephenBabbFeatured ColumnistOctober 15, 2012

May 10, 2012; Boston, MA, USA; Atlanta Hawks forward Josh Smith (5) reacts during the fourth quarter of game six against the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals of the 2012 NBA Playoffs at TD Garden.  Boston Celtics won 83-80.  Mandatory Credit: Greg M. Cooper-US PRESSWIRE

As a transplanted resident of the ATL, I want the best for the Hawks. I really do.

And I also want the best for Josh Smith. Even before moving to Atlanta, he ranked among my favorite players on account of his highlight-ready athleticism and endearing moodiness. The fact that he's a hometown hero doesn't hurt either.

In other words, no one would rather see Smith remain a Hawk.

But failure to reach an agreement on an extension with the power forward could change all that. It now appears inevitable that after this campaign—his ninth season—Smith will become a free agent (via the New York Daily News' Mitch Lawrence):

Josh Smith has told the Hawks that he isn't going to sign an extension during the season. He'd rather wait to become a free agent, when he can get a five-year deal. An extension would limit him to a three-year deal, according to the new CBA rules.

It goes without saying that the financial incentives involved with waiting until this summer should offer Hawks fans at least some reassurances. The non-existent extension doesn't necessarily mean Smith is headed elsewhere.

The possibility certainly exists, though, and that's the troublesome part.

On the one hand, Smith told he didn't want to be traded in July, apparently showing some interest in the club's new direction under GM Danny Ferry. On the other hand, that constituted a change of tune.

Back in March, the Atlanta Journal Constitution's Michael Cunningham reported that the 26-year-old wanted to be traded, a sentiment Smith hardly refuted when questioned.

Though he may be intrigued by this roster's potential or the chance to add some talent via the 2013 free-agent class, it's hard to believe he's completely changed his mind in just a few months' time. Such things have been know to happen, yes. Betting your franchise future on such a thing happening is another story.

That may sound a tad dramatic, but take a moment to contemplate with Smith's free-agent departure would mean to the organization.

Sure, his salary would come off the books and theoretically free Ferry to go after another premium free agent. The trick would be making sure there were any premium free agents interested in Atlanta—especially without Josh Smith on the roster.

Smith's free-agent decision may in turn depend on whether the Hawks can surround him with some additional talent. They'll have the cap flexibility to do so, and they'll have the mandate to use it. Again, though, the question is how much interest those free agents will have in the Hawks.

If nothing materializes soon enough, Smith could pursue a new home.

The franchise would lose its best player and recruiter alike, getting nothing in return.

As difficult as it is to stomach, it may very well be in Atlanta's best interest to move Smith before any of this becomes an issue. In addition to avoiding the distraction surrounding his uncertain future, the Hawks could lock up some assets for the long-haul—and get a head start integrating those assets into head coach Larry Drew's system.

It's not an especially attractive option, but it's better than losing the guy for nothing.

Unless Smith gives the Hawks a credible guarantee that he's sticking around, Ferry's quasi-rebuilding project could use some extra pieces. The value of those pieces would likely depend on Smith's willingness to work out an extension with whichever club is on the receiving end (or otherwise make promises about his offseason intent).

If Smith can be marketed as a long-term acquisition, he could certainly field another borderline All-Star or perhaps some high-upside prospects. If he's viewed as nothing more than a rental, the Hawks won't net as much in any mid-season deal. All the same, some draft picks or young talent could still be in the offing—and that's still better than nothing.

I'm hoping it doesn't come to this. I'm hoping there's no chance Smith leaves and that he's communicated as much to the front office.

Hopes aside, though, preparing for the worst may be in order.