To contenders, he's no ordinary Joe
Contenders are lining up for Joe Smith ... but first he has to secure a buyout
Smith has said he's not angling to leave last-place OKC for a title hopeful
A championship would provide a nice bit of closure to Smith's career
It's a revealing statement about Joe Smith's personality and career that, even when he was set up with an "alley" just crying out for an "oop'' the other day, the Thunder forward declined to slam it down in any sort of clichéd NBA way.
Angling for a buyout from a bad team, in the hopes of signing with a legitimate contender or at least double-dipping in terms of paychecks, is as de rigueur among players these days as checking out the video board overhead after a no-call. Stephon Marbury hasn't played in more than a year, yet thinks he should be allowed to stroll into the Celtics' locker room like a postseason savior. Mikki Moore gets benched by a dreadful Sacramento team, yet surveys the field of playoff-bound juggernauts before selecting Boston as his playoff aspirant of choice. Sam Cassell secures his freedom from the Clippers last season so he can glom a third championship ring, with the Celtics.
And then there's Smith, a perfectly logical candidate to exit a loser and shore up a winner. "What for?" Smith told The Oklahoman when asked about his buyout ambitions. "I've been here all year. Why would I want to do that now? I'm [not] seeking it.''
One piece of Smith's response seemed odd: "A lot of people assume that when you reach a certain amount of years in the league that you always want to seek a title.'' It sounded, if you didn't know him, like he might be one of the several NBA players -- it might be a handful, it might be a ton, but for our purposes here, we'll stick with "several'' -- who care more about the money, the lifestyle and themselves than they do about winning or their teams. But it also was realistic, based on the difficulty of chasing something -- one difficult relocation at a time -- that only one of 30 teams achieves each year. Antonio McDyess learned that from his move to Detroit the season after the Pistons won the NBA championship and thus signed back there in December, choosing the best fit for him regardless of the Pistons' long title odds.
Smith, likewise, did a pretty good job of making Oklahoma City sound like the best fit for him, difficult as that might be for anyone, never mind a 14-year veteran who was dealt to New Orleans last week only to have the trade rescinded after Tyson Chandler failed his physical.
"Like I've said all year long, I like these young guys around here,'' he said. "We've developed some type of chemistry now where I got faith in them and they got faith in me. The way we've been playing lately, it's been a good thing.''
Going to a serious contender, though, could be an even better thing for Smith. He would be a terrific addition to the Celtics, Cavaliers, Spurs, Lakers or even the Nuggets. He is a fundamentally sound player, an opportunistic scorer, a skilled practicioner of help defense and a wrinkle-free locker-room guy. He has the requisite length to make a difference in the paint, in rationed minutes, for any NBA team. And if P.J. Brown can get off the couch to boost Boston and win himself a ring last spring, Smith could easily go from Thunder to postseason lightning for one of the league's powers.
It would provide a nice bit of closure to Smith's NBA career, too, regardless of how long he chooses to play. Drafted as the No. 1 pick in 1995, Smith -- a sophomore out of Maryland nicknamed the Beast of the East, a laughably bad fit for his easy manner -- showed potential but never completely fulfilled it. While others from his class got more attention, hardware and money -- Rasheed Wallace was the fourth pick, Kevin Garnett the fifth -- Smith settled into a journeyman's role, while becoming something of an NBA sad sack. He turned down a reported four-year, $40 million offer before his third season with Golden State, the team that drafted him, and wound up traded to Philadelphia. He signed as a free agent with Minnesota in 1999 for a relatively paltry $1.75 million, and even that blew up on him when it was revealed two seasons later that he and his agent, Eric Fleisher, had negotiated in advance -- in violation of league salary-cap rules -- a maximum-salary deal with the Timberwolves that could have been worth more than $80 million.
An irate commissioner David Stern in 2000 dinged Minnesota for $3.5 million, still the largest team fine in league history, and stripped the franchise of three first-round draft picks. Yet some wisecracked that it was the best money the Wolves ever spent, considering the financial hook they would have been on if Smith had gotten that contract. Their point: His game was as ordinary as his name, a lunch-pail guy undeserving of executive compensation.
That much is true. Through 929 games spent with nine different clubs, Smith has averaged 11.7 points, 6.8 minutes and 27.9 minutes. He hasn't played like a No. 1 pick is expected to play, hasn't shouldered the load for one or two franchises the way a top guy is supposed to. But he has been a valued piece at every stop, that rarity on too many NBA rosters: an adult. For example, when Garnett was brought to his knees by the tragic highway death of his friend Malik Sealy in May 2000, it was Smith and Sam Mitchell who were the emotional rocks of their team.
Smith, for what it's worth, hasn't been paid what No. 1 draft picks and franchise guys typically make. Already the first No. 1 pick to be subject to the NBA's new-in-1995 rookie scale -- Glenn Robinson's 10-year, $68 million contract the year before drafted Smith's three-year, $8.5 million deal -- his career has been a succession of mid-level exceptions, and he even went back to Minnesota -- without his valuable Bird rights -- after Stern banished him for the 2000-01 season because he felt it was the best place for him.
Now, though, Smith has a chance for something better than a nice fit. He has made a great living, but he has a shot at a tremendous late-career transformation. Until last spring, Smith never had made it out of the first round of the playoffs, playing only 26 games in six trips across his first 12 seasons. Last year, he got to Game 7 of the second round with the Cavaliers.
He could go further, perhaps much further, this time around, if only he would make noise and rock boats. But that's not Joe Smith's style, and it hasn't been his career.
Steve Aschburner covered the Minnesota Timberwolves and the NBA for 13 seasons for the Minneapolis Star Tribune. He has served as president or vice president of the Professional Basketball Writers Association since 2005.