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Hawks wait while Smith visits Clippers
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ATLANTA — The relief Hawks fans felt when Elton Brand signed with the 76ers may have lasted only as long as it took Josh Smith to sit down for dinner in Los Angeles with Clippers coach Mike Dunleavy.

Smith, the Atlanta Hawks’ restricted free agent forward, was courted by Philadelphia before the 76ers instead signed Brand, an unrestricted free agent, on Wednesday.

Brand left the Los Angeles Clippers, who immediately set their sights on Smith. The Los Angeles Times reported Smith had dinner with Dunleavy, the Clippers coach, on Wednesday.

That leaves the Hawks again waiting to see if the 22-year-old Smith receives an offer from the Clippers.
Smith’s agent, Brian Dyke, did not return a phone call on Thursday.

The Clippers signed guard Baron Davis to a five-year, $65 million contract and may not have sufficient funds or salary cap room to make an offer for Smith the Hawks could not match.

The Clippers also may have interest in Charlotte forward Emeka Okafor, also a restricted free agent.

The Clippers cleared cap space on Wednesday when they renounced their rights to four players: Shaun Livingston, Dan Dickau, Boniface Ndong, Smush Parker and James Singleton.

Smith, who was second in the NBA with his 2.8 blocked shots per game last season, is best known for his defensive skills, but he has made consistent progress as an offensive complement to shooting guard Joe Johnson.

Smith’s scoring average has increased in each of his four seasons, and his shooting percentage from the field has improved each of the last three years. He averaged a career-best 17.2 points per game with 8.2 rebounds last season. His 45.7 percent field-goal percentage and average of 3.4 assists also were career highs.

The 6-foot-9 Smith’s value is based on more than just statistics. His blocked shots and soaring left-handed power jams make him the Hawks’ biggest hit on TV highlight shows. It doesn’t hurt that he’s also a native of the Atlanta area.

Before he began visiting other teams, Smith said he wants to remain in Atlanta.

“Of course I want to stay with this team,” Smith said. “I grew up a Hawks fan. They’re my hometown team. As a free agent, you’re going to listen to what other clubs have to offer, but I hope to be here for a long time. We’ll just have to see.”

Though the Hawks have seven days to match any offer sheet for Smith, the talks with the 76ers were of great concern because Philadelphia had enough salary cap room to make a top offer.

The 76ers didn’t make an offer to Smith and instead signed Brand, a two-time All-Star, to a five-year, $82 million deal.

If the Hawks are forced to stretch their budget to retain Smith, they may not be able to keep their other top free agent, Josh Childress, or compete for other free agents.

Smith and Childress were first-round picks for the Hawks in 2004. Childress has excelled as the Hawks’ sixth man capable of filling in as the starter at shooting guard and small forward.

Childress has scored in double figures in each of his four seasons, including his average of 11.8 points last season. Childress played an average of 30 minutes despite not starting a game last season.

One of the Hawks’ owners, Michael Gearon Jr., said recently the team is “absolutely, without a doubt, very committed” to re-signing Smith and Childress.

Gearon didn’t return phone or e-mail messages on Thursday.

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