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Ish Smith sees the good in an NBA career marked by 7 trades, 13 teams

Denver Nuggets backup guard Ish Smith has enjoyed his NBA career despite traveling a path that has featured trades, cuts and signings.

Nuggets guard Ish Smith has carved out a soild NBA career despite being traded 7 times in his 13 NBA seasons.

The first week of February brings anxious times around the NBA. This queasy feeling infiltrates locker rooms, dominates conversations and takes up residence inside the heads of dozens of players on dozens of teams.

They all have questions:

Am I next?

Where am I going?

That’s what the trade deadline does. It makes players check Twitter, call their agents, study the news ticker at the bottom of the TV screen, and shoot a suspicious eye toward the team’s general manager — that is, if the GM can be found, because around this time, they’ve gone into hiding, or are on the phone.

For those tortured players, there’s a wise man who has been there and done that and brings a piece of seasoned advice:

“If somebody don’t like me, somebody else will.”

It’s a motto that Ish Smith learned to live by long ago because the NBA gave him no choice. He’s been traded six times at the deadline, seven times overall. This season, he’s playing for the Denver Nuggets, his 13th team — which is an NBA record. He can describe the flavor and feel of two different types of handshakes, the “appreciate your time, but we’re sending you to the (fill in the team name)” shake, and the “welcome to the (fill in the team name)” shake.

There hasn’t been anything bad about it. I just continue to push through, press through. It’s been a blessing, actually. Everyone has their journey. This is mine.”

— Ish Smith, on being traded 7 times in his career

Smith was packaged with a total of seven players and traded for a total of nine players, a first-round pick and two seconds. He was twice included in deals for the most famous name in these types of transactions: cash considerations.

And through all the address changes, jersey swaps, good-byes and hellos, Smith emerged remarkably calm, free of resentment and very fluent in the language of apartment leases.

About that last part: Smith cleverly negotiated with landlords to include a “trade clause” in the 12-month lease so he could escape more easily just in case, well, you know. No wonder his many coaches rave about the point guard’s smarts and creativity.

Jamal Crawford and Candace Parker speak on what it's like to be traded and how to maintain professionalism during the whole process.

Oh, and that’s the thing with Smith and the trade deadline and his comings and goings: He’s not a fringe player barely holding on. He’s solid. He’s quick, tricky off the dribble, steady, a classic overachiever, hard worker, beloved in locker rooms … and good enough to last 13 seasons and counting. Teams appreciated him until it was time for another team to appreciate him.

“There hasn’t been anything bad about it,” Smith said. “I just continue to push through, press through. It’s been a blessing, actually. Everyone has their journey. This is mine.”

He’s the extreme example of what the public doesn’t see, or sense, about the league and the trade deadline and the players impacted by it. To place this in proper context, though: trades are part of the business, players understand this and their salary travels with them so there’s no financial falloff and basketball life goes on.

But it’s a life disrupted nonetheless.

‘Am I getting traded or not?’

The process goes something like this: A trade is agreed upon by teams, paperwork gets filed for the league, teams contact the player agents first in most cases, and then the player hears it straight from them unless, in some sloppy instances, it gets leaked to the media first.

Then, the fun begins: Player cleans out his locker, fills a couple of suitcases, takes the next flight to the new city and checks into a hotel where he’ll stay at the team’s expense for up to 30 days.

It’s all so very whirlwind-ish. But that mostly happens only once or twice in a player’s life. Then there’s Smith.

“On to the next place,” he told himself, multiple times. “You just got to grab your stuff and go.”

He’s actually the definition of an NBA success story. After going undrafted out of Wake Forest in 2010 and being given little chance to stick in the NBA for more than a season, Smith kept his head down and energy up. He’s now 34 and has had a longer career than every player he was traded for except J.J. Redick and Caron Butler.

He mostly remembers his first trade, and really, who can ever forget their first?

Ish Smith experienced his 1st NBA trade in 2011 when he and Shane Battier went from Houston to Memphis.

He played 28 games with the Rockets his rookie season before being sent with Shane Battier to the Grizzlies, so desperate to dump draft bust Hasheem Thabeet that they tossed in a No. 1 pick sweetener on Feb. 24, 2011.

“We just finished playing Minnesota and trade deadline hit,” Smith said. “I didn’t think I’d be in jeopardy. I was like, ‘Who wants me?’ I’m a rookie trying to find my way. Then my agent calls. I never tripped, never got bothered. I went to a great team and a great situation. We beat San Antonio in the [first round of the] playoffs, then took OKC and Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook to seven games [in the West semifinals].”

Smith only played 15 games in Memphis, but he developed the first of many friendships. Even now, he raves about Battier and Zach Randolph, his favorite teammates.

“Shane just gave you so much knowledge about the league, finances, how to respect the game, everything,” Smith said. “Told me to ice my knees after every game whether I played or not, so when I got older I’d have a routine and my knees would last.

“We also had a teammate who once bought a nice big car and bragged about it. Shane looks at me and says, ‘Ish, you want to live better in the league, or out of the league?’ I didn’t know what he meant. He said to save my per diem because we play eight months of the year, and live below my means so when I’m out of the league, I can enjoy everything I saved.”

As for Randolph: “Z-Bo treated you like his little brother. If you did little stuff for him, he’d hand you money. You could call him anytime about anything. I’d lost the backup point guard job and we’re getting ready for the playoffs against the Spurs. Z-Bo said I was gonna help win the series. I was on the scout team, I was Tony Parker in practice. After we beat them he said, ‘Told you. That kind of speed got us prepared, lil bro.’ Made me feel good.”

He was waived by Memphis on Dec. 14, 2011, and two days later signed with the Golden State Warriors. Then the hopscotching began. His car arrived in Oakland from his hometown of Charlotte, and when Mark Jackson, then the Warriors’ coach, put an arm around him and said, “You’re gonna be a player in this league,” Smith exhaled.

Then Jackson continued: “But we drafted Charles Jenkins and we’ve got to get him an opportunity to play. I don’t think you need to be sitting on this bench. So we’re going to release you, but you keep going.”

Smith’s time with the Warriors was 28 days, his shortest stay. The car was immediately boomeranged to Orlando, whom he signed with on Feb. 2, 2012. Then it was a blur of trades, cuts and signings. He didn’t make it to the regular season with the Rockets in 2014 or the first two of his (technically) three stops in Washington (2015, ’19). He lasted a half-season both with the Thunder (in 2014-15) and also the first of two stops with the Sixers (2014-15, ’15-16).

“The first six years in the league when I was on the move and the trade deadline came,” he said, “I did wonder, what’s the next one? Am I getting traded or not?”

He laughs, and said he wanted to tell those teams: “Y’all got all year to trade me and you’re gonna wait until February, the last hour, the last five and 10 minutes to figure it out? I guess some of them work best under pressure.”

The best part: Smith didn’t have a family at the time. (He does now.) So he was very portable. And anyway: “My mom said, ‘You can have emotion but no need to be emotional.’ I have a strong moral faith in how I live my life. I was just looking to where I could get the opportunity.”

Ish Smith says his time and role with the Pistons was one of the high points of his NBA career.

The first sense of stability, and a multi-year contract, finally arrived when he signed with the Detroit Pistons in 2016. Stan Van Gundy, a coach with front-office power, loved him and played him. Smith scored 25 points against the Heat. He had the winning basket over the Bulls. He missed only one game in the first two of his three seasons in Detroit. And at his next stop, he lasted two seasons in Washington. Therefore, after 10 stops in his first six years, he settled down to two in five.

That’s when Smith became an expert on moving matters, only renting furniture and looking for places on the cheap, at least on an NBA player’s salary.

“I found a place in Memphis and went month to month. Some places don’t do that, so you go six months. Once I saw the trades started happening I said let me be smart about this and do a six-month lease and put in a trade clause.

“The second time I’m in Houston I found a place downtown and signed a one-year lease. It was the first time I didn’t go six months or month to month. I was going to trust the Lord. Well, I got released before the season even started. That’s when I hit three teams in one season. While I was in OKC I was paying two rents, there and in Houston. The landlady in Houston felt so bad she said she’d find somebody to rent my place so I didn’t have to double dip.”

Smith’s career a case study in always being ready

Ish Smith (center) is a trusted veteran voice on the title-contending Nuggets.

The friendships, connections, memories and experiences gained from so many locker rooms, front offices, coaching staffs and cities have enriched Smith in ways he never imagined.

“You build relationships,” he said. “Those things can be very difficult when it’s time to leave. So when we meet again and play against each other, we’ll have those relationships again even if we were together for only a few months, a year or multiple years. I can find a guy on any team and talk for five, 10 minutes. I only stayed with the Warriors for a minute but I always go up to (chairman) Joe Lacob when I see him and say hello. That’s what fans don’t understand about the business. All that equity you build with the community, people who work in the arenas, teammates, all of a sudden you have to rebuild with a new team.”

Smith is in a great place with the West-leading Nuggets, who bring championship aspirations. Smith has an important role as a backup in this, Jamal Murray’s comeback season from injury. In fact, when Murray was load-managed early in the season, Smith got minutes.

“He can score, he can get anywhere he wants to go, terrific mid-range shooter,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “He’s also fun to play with.”

He’s probably safe for this season, but he’d heard that one before. Smith says players hearing the rumors need to understand that, ultimately, they control their own fate.

“I tell guys that you’re going to get the opportunity,” he said. “You better be ready. Make sure you capitalize. This is a grown man’s league. If you’re not ready to take on what they want you to do at the next stop, they will find somebody else. Next man up.”

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Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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