MILWAUKEE – As the final hour of the NBA trade deadline ended, Josh Smith released himself of the anticipation, the anxiety over where he’ll finish this season. The only team he’s played for in his career, the Atlanta Hawks, had sought trade offers for Smith, and a deal seemed inevitable. Their decision to keep Smith in the end resonated with him, but both sides know the flexibility that awaits now.
“I knew that they always liked me as far as being with this team long-term,” Smith told RealGM. “But this is my last year on my contract so it was an attraction for a lot of teams to be able to call and reach out to see what they could to do persuade the [Hawks]. But the Hawks showed me that they believed in me, showed the fans that they appreciate everything that I do on and off the court.
“I’m an Atlanta Hawk and I’m going to focus on getting more wins in these last  games left.”
Smith has had his best month of the season amid all the speculation, averaging almost 19 points, 10 rebounds and five assists in nine games. He heard his name in rumors headed here or there – the Bucks or Brooklyn Nets, the Phoenix Suns or San Antonio Spurs, the Dallas Mavericks or wherever – and yet he’s led the Hawks to winning five of the last seven games.
As talented as Smith is, the Hawks chose to shop him to get value in return before the 27-year-old hits unrestricted free agency. Smith has continually grown as an all-around forward this season, and he’s one of two players in the NBA currently putting up at least 17 points, eight rebounds and four assists per game. LeBron James is the other guy. And add at least one block per game to those categories, and Smith stands alone in the league.
Some team is bound to throw big money, perhaps a max contract, at Smith this summer in free agency. Nevertheless, the Hawks still value Smith moving forward. Before pulling out Thursday afternoon, Atlanta had secured the framework of potential trades with the Bucks and multiple other teams that will pursue Smith this offseason, a league source told RealGM.
“I didn’t really know what was going to happen in that last hour or so, so it was definitely anxious times for me,” Smith said.
For Smith, experience has brought elevated value in simply making winning plays: The critical pass, critical block, critical shot or critical defensive rotation. Yes, Smith can make silly plays at times – such as shooting an arrant jumper or having lapses on the court.
Yet when the Hawks need a playmaker on offense, they tend to put the ball in his hands. Struggling with his shot all night, Smith stepped up just when the Hawks had to continue their late surge in Saturday’s 103-102 win over the Bucks. Smith had missed 13 of 18 shots before hitting a three-pointer and then breaking down the Bucks’ defense to throw a sleek alley-oop pass to Al Horford for a dunk – capitalizing an 8-0 run that gave the Hawks a 101-100 lead with one minute, 28 seconds left.
“I work extremely hard in the offseason, I work hard during the regular season, and with age, you get better,” Smith said. “If you work hard on your game and you study film and watch yourself and your opponents, you’ll definitely get better. … I can only just play my game and maybe I do [get taken for granted]. But that’s not up for me to decide. I can only just play my game and let it speak for myself.
“And I’ve been doing that and trying to keep getting better as far as being a leader and keep talking to veteran Hall of Famers that have been in my shoes before.”
Indeed, Smith has cultivated relationships with Hakeem Olajuwon and Kevin Garnett, Rajon Rondo and Rudy Gay. He first started training with Olajuwon in 2006 and has worked out with the Hall of Fame big man for a few summers since. And it was Smith who turned on Dwight Howard to working out with Olajuwon in the offseason.
“Just being a sponge whenever those guys give me positive advice,” Smith said. “I listen to my father as well. I just listen to people that make impacts in this league. We definitely have a lot of dialogue and it’s definitely beneficial.”
There’s continuity between Smith and the Hawks that perhaps gets taken for granted sometimes, and nine seasons together could very well be the end. Still, Smith is taking a simple approach, one game at a time, and sees a clear shot in the Eastern Conference when he looks toward the standings.
“If we catch a stride like we can as far as stringing wins together and finding that chemistry that we need on a consistent basis,” Smith said, “I feel we have a shot at doing something special.”