Of the various missteps and bad decisions that characterize the Robert Sarver era of Phoenix Suns ownership, the one that fans believe started it all was the Joe Johnson sign-and-trade with the Atlanta Hawks. Essentially, the Suns (Sarver) refused to meet Johnson’s salary demands, negotiations got personal, and the Suns managed to salvage value for getting rid of Johnson by acquiring Boris Diaw and the first round pick that eventually became Robin Lopez.
In his final season with the Suns, Johnson was a key player for the youngest and most promising team in the NBA. How events unraveled over the past five seasons suggest that it was the Suns who cared more about money and less about winning. All the selling of player contracts, buyouts, and salary dumps have put the Suns on the verge of collapse.
The Hawks are currently second in the East and fourth overall in the NBA, based on won-loss records. Johnson has been a major contributor to the success of a team that was among the worst in the league at the time Johnson joined the franchise. The Hawks won 26 games in his first season with the team and now are on pace to win 55. In their most recent game, Johnson’s Hawks completed their first season sweep of the Boston Celtics in 11 years.
But the epilogue of the Suns/Johnson saga may see the Suns exonerated in this particular case. And it all comes down to how much Johnson cares about winning.
Bear in mind that the recession-era NBA economy is much different from the booming days of when Johnson was last a free agent. Last offseason, Carlos Boozer opted-in to the final year of his contract at $12.6 million with the Utah Jazz despite rumors suggesting he was seeking a long-term deal in the range of $15 million per year. True, Boozer is an injury-risk player, but he also recently averaged over 20 points and 10 rebounds for two seasons and was the biggest name free agent last offseason. His decision to opt-in speaks volumes about the state of the NBA economy.
With Johnson’s current contract nearing its end, he was offered a four-year, $60 million extension by the Hawks. This season, Johnson will make a tick under $15 million. So the proposed extension provides a small increase. Johnson flatly refused the offer. And unlike the Suns’ Amare Stoudemire, he has not unequivocally stated that his priority is to stay with his current team. The prevailing thought is that Johnson will leave the Hawks in the offseason. Yahoo Sports goes as far to suggest that Johnson will sign with the Chicago Bulls.
The NBA salary cap is expected to be reduced as league revenues continue to decline. Many franchises are expected to cut payroll as a result. Yet, with the Hawks gaining stature as a true contender in the East, it is Johnson who is looking for a big payday as opposed to a championship ring.
When Johnson was with the Suns, they were the rising young team on the verge of joining the NBA elite. The Hawks are now in a similar situation. And like five years ago, Johnson is apparently unhappy and seeking a big pay raise. I wonder who the Hawks fans see as the “bad guy” in this player drama?