The Josh Smith-to-Milwaukee rumors just won't go away.
The Bucks are among a half-dozen teams chasing Atlanta's high-flying forward, and if ESPN's Chris Broussard is to be believed, Smith appears open to the idea of packing his bags for the city he once claimed had "nothing to do":
Josh Smith would like to play w/Monte Ellis & Brandon Jennings so Bucks trying to make trade w/out giving up Ellis.— Chris Broussard (@Chris_Broussard) February 20, 2013
Yesterday's speculation began with the idea of Atlanta taking Ellis back in a deal for Smith, so if the Bucks were to accommodate Smith and hang onto Ellis it would fundamentally alter the nature of any deal. Jennings on the other hand appears unlikely to be dealt no matter what happens with Smith. ESPN's Marc Stein writes that along with Larry Sanders and John Henson, Jennings is now a "near untouchable"" despite persistent rumors of his preference for leaving Milwaukee this summer. Stein's latest suggested Atlanta's demands may also be more modest than the "young players and picks" line we've heard to date, which makes some sense given he could be little more than a rental to any team acquiring him before Thursday.
ESPN.com reported Tuesday that Monta Ellis is the primary player Atlanta is targeting in its discussion with Milwaukee. Sources say that the Hawks, furthermore, want Milwaukee to add at least one expiring contract to the equation with Ellis and possibly take on some salary.
Not that the Bucks and Hawks lack potential pieces to bargain over. The Bucks have a number of expiring contracts with which to make salaries match, though they'd presumably have to give up at least one real asset in order to make it worth the Hawks' while. Ersan Ilyasova could be appealing as Smith's long-term replacement at power forward, though the Hawks are supposedly trying to preserve as much summer cap space as possible. Still, Ilyasova is once again producing for the Bucks, and the three years and guaranteed $24 million owed to him after this season hardly make him a cap liability. Moreover, if the Bucks launched an all-out campaign to acquire and re-sign Smith it's unlikely they could keep Ilyasova long-term anyway. Smith can play both forward spots, but he's mostly a PF and Ilyasova can't play anywhere else.
The Hawks would also no doubt go after younger, cheaper Milwaukee assets like Tobias Harris, Ekpe Udoh and John Henson as well as future draft picks. That's where things get tricky for the Bucks, who can't afford to piss away long-term, affordable assets for just two months of Smith. But they also won't be able to lure a player of Smith's talents via free agency, so there's an argument to be made for sacrificing future cap space for the chance at acquiring and re-signing a player like Smith now. Tom Ziller has a terrific analysis of the real costs of acquiring Smith, as well as how Smith's talents could be maximized.
Talent-wise, Smith is a player who can perform at an All-Star level when he's following the gameplan, which should involve as few jumpers as possible. He can use a strong playmaking point guard because he's not a bad catch-and-shoot player. He should be allowed to freelance on defense, because that's where his tools really shine and also because he's going to freelance regardless. He should be trusted moving the ball because he's a helluva passer for a player of his size, but again ... discourage the jumpers by having some good shooters around him. And I, for one, would love to see Smith in an up-tempo offense for a change.
We all know the Bucks want to be competitive this season, but even in an ideal world it's not like Smith elevates the Bucks to an East contender. He's a disruptive defender and a matchup nightmare, and certainly more talented than anyone the Bucks currently have on their roster. But Smith has also been a miserably inefficient scorer who will hardly cure the Bucks' offensive woes, which makes the notion of a Smith/Jennings/Ellis trio equal parts fascinating and horrifying on the offensive end. It would also be a difficult trio to retain long-term, especially with Larry Sanders due for an eight-figure extension in the summer of 2014. Again here's Ziller:
But what exactly is a time trading for Smith getting, and will he be worth both whatever that team gives up to get him plus the contract he's expecting in July? Remember, Smith will be a free agent on July 1. He has said he's looking for a max deal. Given his time of service, Smith will be eligible for an estimated five-year, $97.5 million deal by the team that trades for him, assuming the league's salary cap rises as expected. (That team, however, would have some pretty amazing leverage thanks to the new collective bargaining agreement: Smith would only be eligible for an estimated four-year, $73 million contract from another team. So in theory, the team that trades for him and his Bird rights could hardball him into an $85-90 million deal over five years.)
Maybe you can justify paying Smith $90 million if you surround him with the right complementary talents, but I'm pretty sure giving both Ellis and Jennings $10+ million per season to be those guys isn't the best way to build a long-term winner. Forking over that kind of money shouldn't be taken lightly, even if the Bucks would generally struggle to acquire big-time talents via free agency. Maybe they'd all get along famously--Jennings and Smith are Oak Hill buds and Ellis and Smith are friends going back to their high school days--but the Bucks aren't running a summer camp either.