Hawks GM Rick Sund said the team will do whatever it takes to re-sign Joe Johnson but he’s not writing the checks. One guy who is, ASG’s Michael Gearon Jr., said the Hawks would “react” once Johnson hits the free-agent market on July 1.
Gearon didn’t want to talk about J.J. this week but on the day after the Hawks’ season ended he offered some insight into his view on max contracts:
“The biggest problem most teams make is they sign a contract and it ends up being a bad contract. You look at the Miami Heat, Jermaine O’Neal makes $23 million a year. Is he a player that is worth $23 million a year? I would say probably not. If you look at our team, we’ve assembled a team where we try to stay away from bad contracts.
“That said, there isn’t a move we haven’t made. We thought it made sense to get Jamal Crawford here and increase the payroll, so we did that. With the salary cap, the only way go above that is trade players you have or you re-sign players you have where the payroll goes up. Since we bought the team the payroll has increased [by] $24 million What we haven’t done is make a mistake with a bad contract. Well, I shouldn’t say that, Speedy’s contract wasn’t very good, but we turned it into something [in the Crawford trade].”
The obvious counter to Gearon’s argument is getting players like O’Neal often requires signing (or trading for) deals that carry some risk on the back end. But clearly that’s not ASG’s philosophy and, as I’ve said before, it’s hard to blame them since there are only a few max-salary players who would excite fans to the point of offering a reasonable chance of a return on investment in this market. Gearon again:
“If somebody came to us tomorrow and said you can have LeBron for max money and it puts you in the luxury tax, I’d do it in a a heartbeat. But am I going to do that for Ilgauskas? Am I going to do it for Jermaine O’Neal? I don’t think so. . . .
“We have piled tens of millions of dollars into this product to make it good. But it’s also up to fans to show up and see your team and support your team. I think we’ve given them a product as exciting as any in the league. You want people to be there, you want them to support your team and be proud of it. I think we have a team that deserves that.”
No one knows for sure what J.J. can get on the market and/or at what point Sund’s “whatever it takes” is trumped by ASG’s fiscal restraint. But chances are if the Hawks are going to sign a major free agent this summer, it’s going to be J.J. Otherwise, due to salary-cap rules they don’t have many options for signing a comparable replacement.
You can either trust me on that, slog through the following detailed explanation (which could possibly make your head hurt and your eyeballs bleed) or skip down the paragraph that starts with “All of those moves technically would leave the Hawks with $8.1 million in cap room”. . . .
I’ve checked all of the following against info posted by cap expert Larry Coon. I also exchanged e-mails with Coon, who after years of providing friendly help for helpless hacks like me now is writing a blog at the New York Times Web site, among other places. I also corresponded with blog reader Robert Dinterman, who says he’s just a fan with a lot of CBA knowledge. I can tell you this is true, so Ps and thanks to Robert.
I’ve included the appropriate links if you are interested in how I came up with the numbers or are some kind of masochist (I don’t judge). I’m pretty confident it’s all accurate but I don’t claim to be a cap expert or any better than competent at simple arithmetic. If you think there are any errors in math or cap interpretation, please send me an email–mcunningham at ajc.com–and I will check it out and update where necessary.
As it stands, the Hawks have roughly $47.6 million committed to eight players next season when including Mo Evans’ $2.5 million. Let’s say Evans opts out and then J.J. and Josh Childress and all their other free agents signs elsewhere and/or the Hawks renounce all their free agents.
If all of that happens, then the following would come off the Hawks’ books for their total offseason salary of approximately $78.9 million, which includes committed salaries and cap holds for their free agents and the No. 24 draft pick (assuming they keep it):
Joe Johnson’s $15.8 million cap hold
As a Bird Free Agent, Johnson’s offseason salary figure is based on 150 % of previous salary, which is about $22.5 million, but the figure can’t exceed the maximum salary for a nine-year player, which hasn’t been determined yet but that Coon estimates will be about $15.8 million.
Josh Childress’ $10.9 million cap hold
Childress is a Bird Free Agent coming off the fourth year of his rookie-scale contract. According to the 2004-05 rookie scale, Childress’ fourth-year salary as the No. 6 pick was 26.8 percent more than his third-year salary of $2.86 million, or $3.6 million. (The higher salary is because Childress made about 120 percent more than the scale, which is allowable.) The $3.6 million is less than the league-defined average salary of $4.9 million in 2004-05. Therefore, Childress’ cap hold is 300 percent more than $3.6 million, or roughly $10.9 million.
Mo Evans’ $2.5 million salary
If Mo opts out, his salary is wiped out.
Mario West’s $1.06 million cap hold
As a three-year veteran who has been previously waived, West is a non-bird, restricted free agent. As such, his team salary is calculated as the greater of 120 percent of his previous salary ($572,344) or his qualifying offer. For West, the qualifying offer is the greater of 125 percent of his previous salary ($596,191) or the three-year vet minimum ($885,120) plus $175,000, which is $1.06 million.
Joe Smith’s $854,389 cap hold
Smith is a 12-year veteran with a minimum 2010-11 salary of $1.352 million, but since he’s played more than seasons any salary in excess of the two-year veteran minimum salary in 2010-11 ($854,389) is reimbursed by the league and not counted as part of team salary.
Jason Collins’ $854,389 cap hold
Collins is a nine-year veteran with a minimum 2010-11 salary of $1.229 million, but since he’s played more than three seasons any salary in excess of the two-year veteran minimum salary in 2010-11 ($854,389) is reimbursed by the league and not counted as part of team salary.
Randolph Morris $854,389 cap hold
Morris is a four-year veteran with a minimum 2010-11 salary of $992,680, but since he’s played more than three seasons any salary in excess of the two-year veteran minimum salary in 2010-11 ($854,389) is reimbursed by the league and not counted as part of the team salary.
Subtracting Evans’ option plus the free-agent holds would leave the Hawks’ salaries at about $46.1 million (committed salaries for seven players at $45.1 million plus the rookie scale amount of $964,000 for the 24th pick).
But other salary charges apply since the Hawks then would be under the salary cap (estimated by the league will be $56.1 million in 2010-11) and have only eight players when counting the players under contract plus the first-round pick. The roster charge for the four empty spots below 12 are based on the 2010-11 rookie minimum salary of $473,604, for a total of $1.89 million. That would increase the Hawks’ salary total to about $48 million ($46.1 million plus $1.9 million).
All of those moves technically would leave the Hawks with roughly $8.1 million in cap room, but they would be subject to holds for the mid-level and bi-annual exceptions. Those holds apply if adding them would put the Hawks over the cap. It’s hard to say if that will happen now because while the amount for the 2010-11 bi-annual exception is known ($2.08 million) the mid-level amount hasn’t yet been set (Coon is estimating it will be $5.73 million this season). Also, all these salary numbers are estimates while the league calculates them down to dollars and cents. No, really.
If the Hawks are subject to cap holds for the mid-level and bi-annual exceptions, they could renounce those exceptions to gain cap room. Either way, they would be looking at adding players by using either the mid-level and bi-annual exceptions or roughly $8 million in cap room plus minimum-salaried players. So even if Evans opts out, Johnson walks, Childress returns to Greece and/or the Hawks renounce those two and all of their other free agents, there’s still not much flexibility for the Hawks.
As for the Hawks using Johnson in a sign-and-trade to get more value in return, the best way for that to happen is trading him to a team that is over the salary cap. Teams with enough cap room can just sign Johnson straight up and, as everyone knows, there are lots of those teams this summer. Already the Heat are reported to have interest in Johnson, who has said he likes them, too.
If Johnson wants a maximum deal under the Bird rules and his new team agrees, he could go back to the Hawks and ask for a sign-and-trade (he can get six years instead of five and up to about $30 million more that way). But the Hawks wouldn’t have much leverage in that situation, especially if Johnson’s new team is offering him the non-bird max and the Hawks don’t want to go that high. In that case if the Hawks say no to a sign-and-trade, then J.J. could just sign with the new team for the non-bird max.
If the Hawks agreed to a sign-and-trade with Johnson’s new team, they could expect to get back something similar to what Seattle acquired in similar circumstances when Rashard Lewis bolted as a free agent for Orlando in 2007: a conditional second-rick pick and a trade exception.
All of this is a long, painful, mind-numbing way of saying Johnson’s value to the Hawks is enhanced not only because he’s their best player, but also because should he leave they won’t have the flexibility to sign a comparable player. The Hawks could try to get better through trades, but then the problem becomes their reluctance to break up their core group (and possibly weaken the roster in other areas) and the difficulty with trading bad contracts for better players. That’s not to mention ASG’s aversion to taking on large, long-term deals and paying the luxury tax (expected to be about $70 million in 2010-11).
So after three straight years in the playoffs and consecutive trips to the East semis, the Hawks would be hard-pressed to be as good or better next season if J.J. leaves. There could potentially be more flexibility the next season, with Jamal off the books and Bibby’s contract more tradeable, but who the heck knows what will happen between now and then.
Now excuse me while I go place bandages over my bleeding eyeballs.