The Atlanta Hawks are generating major movement in the Eastern Conference standings, and they're doing so for all the wrong reasons.
With seven losses in their past nine games, the team officially hit rock bottom in Monday night's abysmal 39-point loss to the Chicago Bulls, which included new franchises lows for points scored in a quarter (five in the second), half (19 in the first) and game (58).
Then again, Monday's showing could have merely put the club within 24 hours of rock bottom, as forward Josh Smith was thrown out of Tuesday's practice (according to Chris Vivlamore of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution).
Smith was subsequently given a one-game suspension and an undisclosed fine for "conduct detrimental to the team," (via InsideHoops.com). His agent, Wallace Prather, spoke with Hawks GM Danny Ferry on Wednesday, expressing "a lot of frustration" from Smith (according to CBS NBA Insider Ken Berger).
With an expiring $13.2 million contract, perhaps his frustrations have more to do with his individual struggles than those of his team. The impending free agent has failed to capitalize on that always important contract year, posting his worst field-goal percentage (43.9) since the 2006-07 season and his second lowest player efficiency rating (17.4) of his past seven seasons (via basketball-reference.com).
When engaged, he's one of the most versatile stars the league has to offer. His suffocating, athletically-enhanced defense can spark fast-break opportunities with blocks (2.3 per game for his career) or steals (1.3). His length (6'9"), quickness and hops allow him to finish those same fast-breaks with some of the premier highlight throwdowns in today's game.
Of course, he's not always engaged. And that's a big part of the reason why he's facing an uncertain future at year's end.
With a strong veteran contingency (and realistic championship hopes for him to chase) there are a few teams around the league that could provide the perfect environment for the 27-year-old to harness his unique skill set.
Mavericks owner Mark Cuban has recently expressed an openness to add salary in the right deal (according to Tim MacMahon of ESPNDallas.com), but it's tough to imagine this being the type of deal Cuban had in mind. Not to mention that the 16-23 Mavericks look worlds away from being a contending team.
As for the Houston Rockets, they'd either approach the deal as a half-season rental or face a daunting salary in the coming seasons thanks to the offseason commitments the franchise made with James Harden, Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik. Should they chose to move Smith, the Hawks will be seeking multiple assets in return, something the Rockets may not want to part with if they're not convinced that Smith's addition makes them a championship-caliber club.
That leaves the just the Grizzlies, who dominated the rumor mill of late with discussions involving both Rudy Gay and Zach Randolph. A Gay-for-Smith swap might appear a bit redundant, but it could offer the clubs the best opportunity to find equal value on the trade market.
But there's another team that could enter the fray: the 20-17 Boston Celtics.
Coach Doc Rivers' team has surged to a season-best six-game winning streak, but that hasn't stopped the front office from fielding trade calls. According to what several executives have told ESPN's Chad Ford, "they believe everything is on the table."
The Celtics have shown interest in Smith as recently as the 2012 offseason (via ESPN's Marc Stein), and they could clearly use an upgrade in toughness and physicality on their front line. It might cost them Mr. Celtic Paul Pierce (who would give the Hawks the reliable offense they've lacked), but a starting lineup that includes Smith, Rajon Rondo, Avery Bradley and Kevin Garnett could wreak havoc on the opposition.
Not to mention the fact that it would shave a few years off of their aging roster, while also freeing the Celtics of the $15.3 million owed to Pierce in 2013-14.
The Hawks don't want to see Smith walk over the summer, leaving them nothing but gobs of cap space without an identifiable target to spend it on. And they can't feel strongly about their chances to re-sign him given the suspension and subsequent agent chat.
His track record might not make him the easiest to deal, but that expiring contract and athletic ability should leave Ferry with a number of potential trade partners.
As badly as Smith hopes that Ferry gets this right, basketball fans may want it even worse. There aren't many players more fun to watch than a focused, driven J-Smoove.