Five trades later, Ish Smith finally has stability in the NBA (for now)

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AUBURN HILLS, Mich. -- About a year ago, Ish Smith's mom sent him a message. Gwen Smith had been trying for years to get her son to buy a home. She wanted him to have some equity, something to help settle him in to adult life. For three or so years, she had pestered him about it.

Gwen had a feeling about this place in Davidson, North Carolina. Smith resisted. When he came home over the All-Star break last year, she wanted him to look at the place. He said no. He came home for a few days to relax, not go house hunting.

Nothing he saw previously around Charlotte felt quite right. Some houses were too small. Others, too big. Smith didn't have much stability anyway; the only thing consistent about his career was how much he moved during it.

"She had been speaking to me for a minute about getting a house," said Smith, a Charlotte native. "Get a house, son. Get a house, son. It's a good investment. It's a good investment. I said, 'Mom, I will when the time comes. Right now, that time is not right.'"

The time, though, was approaching. As last season ended, Smith's first with the Detroit Pistons, he reached out to his manager and cousin, Shannon Williams, and asked her to find a real estate agent.

One of the houses on the Realtor's list? The one his mom had sent him months earlier. Smith went by the place with his financial advisor, Chris Leak. The home was still for sale. They went inside. Smith fell in love.

"It was quickly like, this is the house that I want," Smith said. "This is perfect. That's exactly what I need, exactly what I want. My cousin and my mom are like, 'Oh my gosh, if you just listened to me the first time, this could have been done and over with.'

"I'm like, 'Everything is timing.'"

Smith bought his first home in May, closed on it in July and moved in a week before he returned to Detroit for training camp this past September -- once his furniture from Restoration Hardware was finally delivered. The home, his first, offered Smith something he hadn't had in his career until signing his three-year, $18 million deal with Detroit before the 2016-17 season:

Stability. Permanence.

As the NBA trade deadline looms this week, Smith knows firsthand how fast things can change.

Undrafted out of Wake Forest, he has been the ultimate mover since entering the league in 2010. He has played on 10 different NBA teams (11 if you include his monthlong stint with the Wizards in training camp in 2015). That makes him one of only 13 players in league history, and the only active one, to play for at least 10 teams in his career.

Smith has been traded five times, waived six times, signed seven times and claimed twice. He went to the D-League twice. And his rights were held by three teams -- New Orleans, Houston and Philadelphia -- twice.

All of this and he hasn't even turned 30 yet.

"I remember somebody told me, 'Do you want to get traded earlier in your career or later in your career? Because it's going to happen.'" Smith said. "You can list tons of guys, later in their career they get traded a lot and then guys early in their career get traded a lot.

"So know it's going to happen. Just be optimistic that you'll find your spot."

When Smith entered the league in 2010, he thought his spot would be Houston, which called after the draft and invited him to join its summer league team, then brought him to training camp. He made the roster, bouncing between Houston and Rio Grande Valley as a rookie. He found a role backing up Aaron Brooks and Kyle Lowry and enjoyed playing for Rick Adelman. He even bought furniture for his place, thinking he'd be with the Rockets for the duration of his contract.

"I'm like, 'This is a pretty good life,'" Smith said.

It was short-lived.

After a two-game, back-to-back road trip in February 2011, Smith returned home and was about to take a nap when he saw the scroll at the bottom of his TV: His teammate, Shane Battier, had been traded.

Smith was bummed. He planned on texting Battier after his nap but was interrupted by a call from his agent.

"I remember this like yesterday," Smith said. "He's like, 'Ish, you just got traded to Memphis.' I'm like, 'I didn't see it on the bottom line.'"

Sure enough, the next time the bottom line scrolled across the screen his name was included in the deal for DeMarre Carroll, Hasheem Thabeet and a future first-round pick.

"I was like, 'What?'" Smith said. "I thought the trade was straight-up Shane for DeMarre Carroll. How did I get thrown in there?'"

That was the day Smith realized the business of the NBA. And that was the day he decided he wasn't going to buy much going forward. The furniture he purchased in Houston went back to his mother's place in North Carolina, dispersed among family members.

Smith was a throw-in, barely mentioned in news stories about the deal.

Ten months later, the Grizzlies waived him after only 15 appearances. Memphis general manager Chris Wallace was upfront with Smith upon his release. He liked Smith's speed, personality and coachability, but shooting was an issue. If Smith was going to make it in the league, he was going to have to improve his shot.

"I strive to be honest with these guys," Wallace said, "because I respect their careers and the work that they've done and the miles they've traveled to get where they are now. But sometimes, as close as they are, it can sometimes be a gulf the size of the Grand Canyon away from getting on the other side and making it permanently unless you fix your deficiencies."

The next five seasons were dizzying. He was on nine teams during that span and spent an entire season with the same team just once -- the 2013-14 Suns. After Phoenix, he returned to Houston on his first guaranteed deal in 2014. He thought he might have the stability he sought. But right before the start of the next season, the Rockets bought out his contract. It's the move that stunned him the most.

He had become a true NBA journeyman -- a term he doesn't love but understands is his reality.

"When I was traded, then I got traded again and I realized this is kind of serious," Smith said. "For me, I've gotten a little more comfortable with it. Early in my career, it was kind of like I had one bag packed and then everything else.

"But it's gotten so much better now. There was a time where I was one foot in the door, one foot out the door, let me look at the trade deadline, is my name anywhere thrown around, stuff like that. But it's part of it."

He ended up living in a hotel during stints in Golden State, New Orleans and his first time in Philadelphia. Other times, he would end up in a place for a season -- or half of it -- until he was traded or waived again. But his mom and his faith never let him give in.

Gwen, he said, has been "a great support system." If he didn't have his faith, he admits he would probably have been "mad and frustrated." Instead, he focused on what she told him. He'd pay attention to the advice he received from front-office personnel and teammates on what he needed to improve. It helped him keep "that inner confidence," even though he moved around a bunch.

Meanwhile, Gwen kept in constant contact with his agent. She studied the NBA and prepped her son when she thought he might be traded or cut because she would get "a little uneasiness" about his situation with various teams. Smith would stay in pretty close communication with his agent too.

Trade deadlines were stressful, although he said some of the tension came from friends and family members asking for updates. His contract usually wasn't big enough to be prohibitive to move, and his game was good enough that he'd be an intriguing add-on piece for a team to take on.

"He's just a likeable guy," said Pistons assistant coach Otis Smith, the general manager in Orlando when Ish played with the Magic. "Usually his [salary] numbers are low, so he's easy to move and he's zero problem, almost to a fault. You'd like to have him on your team, but you can understand why teams move him."

On deadline days, Gwen said she would "always be a little nervous" as she counted down the hours with Smith's sister, Serlethea Williams.

If Smith left a city, sometimes Gwen and Serlethea ended up on the go too, traveling to help ease the burden of moving. When Smith went from Houston to Oklahoma City in 2014, they flew to Houston to pack his belongings into his car and got it to him in the next city. Smith's three televisions were the hardest to pack up. Serlethea eventually devised a combination of bubble wrap, foam popcorn and blankets to make sure they didn't break. This strategy was used in multiple moves.

"We would only leave the driver room to drive the car on the truck," Gwen said. "Then the car would go to wherever he is, and he would unpack his car. That's what we did. That's how he would move."

Other times, Smith said, he packed the car up himself and sent it on its way or left his car in his old city, packed his clothes in a bag, rented a car in the new city and finished out the season before retrieving the rest of his belongings.

"I always said this through my whole journey. The next move is the best move."
Ish Smith

Smith finally found a semblance of stability due to, of all things, being cut again in 2015. After a trade from Oklahoma City to New Orleans led to him being waived, he signed with Team No. 9 -- the 76ers. It changed his career.

Philadelphia was 12-42 and point guard was a need. Smith had on-court speed and off-court experience in adverse situations, due to all his moves. After starting the season stunned that Houston had cut him, by the end, the Sixers gave Smith something he hadn't had before: a chance to start.

"I was like, 'Yo, this has to work,'" Smith said. "If this doesn't work, I'm not in the league."

It worked. He started 64 games in Philadelphia, trusting both the Sixers' process and his own. He played some of the best ball of his career, which led to one more move -- Team No. 10 and what he always sought: stability and a home in the form of a three-year deal with the Pistons and his former coach in Orlando, Stan Van Gundy.

Still, Smith knows there's a chance he could move a few more times during his career. The deadline is approaching again. He's not thinking about it, though. For now, he's in Detroit. He has built a career.

With the Pistons, he has played a variety of roles. When Reggie Jackson has been injured during the past two seasons, Smith has filled in as a starter, making 49 starts in 133 games. He has been a spark off the bench, the high-energy, high-character player who has blossomed into a leader. All the bouncing around has turned him into one of the most veteran players on the Pistons, with only Anthony Tolliver having played more seasons in the league.

"If you would have told any GM or anybody that Ish is going to be in the league eight years or say the five or six years after this, that's going to be 13 to 14 years," Smith said. "You would have told anybody, any of the guys, 13 or 14 years Ish was going to be in the league, they probably would have laughed at you.

"No matter how many teams, you tell somebody you're in the league 13, 14 years. For me, that's a stat that I probably wouldn't even pay attention to. Everybody wants stability. I don't care what people say. People can say, 'Oh man, it doesn't matter to me.' That sounds all cliché and corny. To me, everybody wants stability. Stay here the duration of my three years and then make a decision after that, that'd be a good thing."

It all goes back to permanence. Before he bought his home, all of his locker contents would be shipped to Gwen's house, where she'd hang his jerseys in an upstairs closet. At one point, she thought about making a quilt of them for her son. But Smith stopped her. He knew he wanted a place of his own one day and told her he planned on framing and hanging his jerseys -- from all 10 NBA teams and counting, with nine different numbers -- in the house he had yet to own but now does.

It's a project for the future -- a future that is less uncertain than it used to be.

"I always said this through my whole journey," Smith said. "The next move is the best move. That's what I always used to tell myself. The next move is the best move, simply because I got another opportunity."