- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 13, 2008

Whether Joe Smith deserves to be called a journeyman is a matter of opinion. But he is, no doubt about it, well traveled.

Smith’s NBA itinerary, more like an odyssey, includes stops in Golden State, Philadelphia, Minnesota, Detroit, Minnesota again, Milwaukee, Denver, Philadelphia again and Chicago. Last month he joined the Cleveland Cavaliers, who play the Washington Wizards tonight at Verizon Center.

That’s eight teams and nine separate transactions in 13 seasons for the former Maryland All-American, national college player of the year and No. 1 pick in the 1995 NBA Draft.

“I guess I’m good trade bait,” he said.

The 6-foot-10 forward has signed with four teams as a free agent and been traded five times, including last month’s three-team, 11-player deal. In an effort to improve LeBron James’ supporting cast, Smith went to the Cavaliers from Chicago along with Ben Wallace and Seattle’s Delonte West and Wally Szczerbiak in exchange for Larry Hughes and Drew Gooden among others.

Coming off the bench, Smith has averaged 9.8 points and 6.2 rebounds a game and shot 53 percent from the field for Cleveland going into last night’s game at New Jersey. The Cavaliers had won six of nine since the trade.

“He’s just there doing what you need him to do and more,” Cavaliers coach Mike Brown said.

Despite that and his longevity, Smith has been subjected to some harsh opinions. Some critical fans and observers have used “bust” in assessing the 32-year-old’s career in the context of being a former No. 1 pick. He has never been an All-Star or even a full-time starter the last few seasons.

But he did make the All-Rookie first team, and he averaged 17.0 points and 8.2 rebounds during his near three-year tenure with the Warriors. Since then he has carved a reputation among many in the league as a useful, capable player. Few, if anyone, connected with the game regard him as a bust, especially compared with the likes of Kwame Brown, taken No. 1 by the Wizards in 2001, and the tepid careers of other top picks.

“Heavens no,” said Orlando assistant general manager Dave Twardzik, the former Golden State general manager who drafted Smith. “There are lofty expectations to be a franchise player when you’re taken No. 1. I think he’s had a solid career. Look at the numbers everywhere he’s been. He’s been fairly consistent. A double-figures scorer, he rebounds well. I like Joe a lot.”

Even after James had Madison Square Garden buzzing with a 50-point game against the Knicks on March 5, Mike Brown praised Smith’s contribution.

“You’re talking about a professional,” he said. “He’s just a professional. He shoots the ball very well, he can post up. He’s extremely intelligent. He can rebound. He’s a nice piece for our ballclub.”

Smith, averaging 12 points and nearly seven rebounds over his career, has heard the negative comments. Affable and pleasant to a fault, he doesn’t flinch when someone reminds him. He knows who he is and he’s fine with that. He has a wife, three kids and a budding career (he hopes) as a rap artist. He said he has written about 400 songs.

And teams always have been willing to pay him. As Gary Williams, his former coach at Maryland, said, “Financially, I think Joe’s OK.”

“I’m just one of those players that doesn’t get a lot of attention,” Smith said. “But I’m still gonna be consistent night in and night out. People don’t really kind of give me just due I think I deserve. Throughout my career I’ve been moved around a lot and people look at that and think bad of that. But, at the same time, no matter where I’ve been, I’ve performed as consistent as possible.”

Money was a factor in at least some of the trades. He reportedly rejected $10 million a year from Golden State, forcing the Warriors to send him to Philadelphia in 1998 to avoid losing him to free agency. After signing with Chicago last summer, he started 35 games and was enjoying his best season in years. But the Bulls floundered and general manager John Paxson had to shake things up.

“When we signed Joe, we felt we were a team that would be in the upper tier of the Eastern Conference, but that didn’t pan out for us,” Paxson wrote in an e-mail. “We made a decision to change the look of our team by moving Ben Wallace, and the deal became such that Joe’s financial number had to be in the deal. I obviously didn’t like giving up Joe because he played so well for us and brought us a much needed professionalism to our young group of players. Unfortunately, we weren’t living up to expectations and a different direction was decided upon.”

Unfortunately for Smith, he remains perhaps best known for his connection with a tawdry chapter of NBA history. After the lockout in January 1999, he signed a one-year contract for a modest $1.75 million with Minnesota. But there was a catch. His agent at the time, Eric Fleisher, had Smith agree to a secret, seven-year deal worth up to $86 million as a means of circumventing the salary cap.

When word got out, NBA commissioner David Stern voided the deal, making Smith a free agent, and took away five of the Timberwolves’ future No. 1 draft picks (one pick was later reinstated). Vice president of basketball operations Kevin McHale and owner Glen Taylor received suspensions, and Fleisher became the first agent fined by the NBA Players Association.

“I still get asked about that everywhere I go and I’m quite sure it’s gonna be a question I continue to get,” said Smith, who signed with Detroit for one year before returning to Minnesota.

“At the same time, it’s something I try to put behind me. I was a young guy, it was a situation where I was kind of misled a little bit. It was a deal with my agent, my former agent, and the Timberwolves and I thought it was something that was all right.”

A late-bloomer who grew quickly but never added much weight, Smith was mostly overlooked during his high school career in Norfolk. He signed with Maryland and became an instant star, scoring 26 points in his first game, an upset of Georgetown at the old USAir Arena.

Smith was a third-team All-American as a freshman and a first-teamer as a sophomore, winning the Naismith Award as national player of the year. He emerged as a seminal figure in Maryland basketball history even though he played just two years.

Williams and the program still struggled in the wake of Len Bias’ death and NCAA sanctions. Before Smith’s arrival in 1993, Maryland had two straight losing seasons and two straight eighth-place finishes in the ACC.

“Coming out of that, if we didn’t win in a couple years, I wouldn’t be here,” Williams said. “It meant a lot to me the way we played.”

Smith, along with guard Keith Booth, helped change everything. Maryland went 18-12 in 1993-94 and 26-8 the following year, making it to the NCAA Midwest semifinals. It was the first of what would be 11 straight NCAA tournament appearances that included two Final Four trips and one national championship.

“It meant a lot to me that year [1993-94], personally, as well as to the school,” Williams said. “I think that was a big breath of fresh air for the university. I think there had been so many negative things that had happened in the last six or seven years that finally we were just being talked about for our basketball ability rather than some sideshow. I know it was great for me.”

Staff writer Patrick Stevens contributed to this article.

SMITH TIMELINE

1995

Drafted by the Golden State Warriors in the first round (first overall) in 1995.

1998

Traded by Golden State with Brian Shaw to 76ers for Jim Jackson and Clarence Weatherspoon.

1999

Signed as a free agent by the Minnesota Timberwolves.

2000

Signed as a free agent by the Detroit Pistons.

2001

Signed as a free agent by the Minnesota Timberwolves.

2003

Traded by Minnesota with Anthony Peeler to the Milwaukee Bucks for Sam Cassell and Ervin Johnson.

2006

Traded by Milwaukee to the Denver Nuggets for Ruben Patterson.

2006

Traded by Denver with Andre Miller and two first-round draft picks to 76ers for Allen Iverson and Ivan McFarlin.

2007

Signed as a free agent by the Chicago Bulls.

2008

Traded by Chicago with Ben Wallace and second-round pick to the Cleveland Cavaliers

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