HAWKSVILLE – Much has been and will be made about Joe Johnson’s decision to bypass signing an extension with the Hawks and become a free agent at the end of this NBA season.
And rightfully so.
In the minds of us common folk, the idea of staring down $60-plus million more dollars seems laughable in these harsh economic times. But Johnson is not one of us (common folk), and there are at least $70 million reasons for that. He also has something professional athletes have maybe once or twice, if they are lucky, in their entire careers — LEVERAGE.
By playing out the final year of his deal he’ll become a free agent in the summer of 2010, joining guys like LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in a deep free agent class that has as many as a dozen different (financially capable) teams around the league salivating. So in that regard, he’d have been crazy to sign an extension for just four years if he stands to get not only another year but millions more by becoming a free agent next summer.
My email was flooded Tuesday afternoon by people wondering what JJ was thinking. Fans of the Hawks, writers from around the league and concerned citizens all wanted to know why he’d so such a thing. My response to everyone was the same, why wouldn’t he maximize his leverage at this time? Teams do so all the time when their players are free agents. In recent years the Hawks have had Josh Smith, Josh Childress, Marvin Williams, Mike Bibby and Zaza Pachulia play out the final years of their deals without an extension. In almost every case things have worked out well for both sides.
It’s simply a part of the business of basketball that Johnson explained to me the other day. He could have saved his words. I get it. I don’t assume that his loyalty is somehow in question because he turned down the offer, the same way I don’t (always) question a team’s loyalty when they allow a player to finish out his deal before deciding just how much they want to invest in said player for the future. Again, it’s called leverage.
The reality in all these instances is pretty clear, you have a player for the life of his contract unless a decision is made to change that dynamic. And it’s always for better (JJ) or worse (Flip Murray’s deal was just one year), through sickness (or injury in Speedy Claxton’s case) and in health (Smith has been as durable as any player I can remember through the first five seasons of his career).
I dare anyone to suggest that the Hawks haven’t squeezed every ounce of benefit they could out of having JJ on the roster – he’s got the mileage on his body to prove it if anyone wants to inspect the tread on his tires. He’s been to three straight All-Star games and for at least the better part of his first two years he carried this team on his shoulders as the youngsters grew up and learned the nuances of the NBA game. That’s why it’s so hard for me to digest some of the venom pointed in his direction now.
As I suggested in a comment on the previous post, the idea of a highly motivated All-Star in the prime of his career itching to take his game to another level (for any reason) is an ideal situation for your team. As good as JJ has been in the past, you have to think he’ll be even better this year with the seasoned and talented roster the Hawks have in place, not to mention the quality additions to the roster like Jamal Crawford and Jeff Teague in the backcourt and Joe Smith and Jason Collins in the frontcourt.
It’s the same argument made here by many when Smith, Childress, Williams and the like were put in a similar position as pending free agents in the final year of their respective deals.
Whether or not JJ made the right call for JJ remains to be seen. And we likely won’t have a solid answer until next summer’s free agent frenzy plays itself out. But there’s no way the Hawks can lose in the meantime. No way.