Star guard asks Phoenix to let him go
By Marc Stein
TORONTO -- Restricted free agent Joe Johnson, who next week plans to sign a lucrative offer sheet from the Atlanta Hawks, told ESPN.com on Friday night that he has asked the Phoenix Suns not to match the offer.
2004-2005 SEASON STATISTICS
GM PPG RPG APG FG% FT%
82 17.1 5.1 3.5 .461 .750
In town for Steve Nash's charity game at Air Canada Centre, Johnson revealed that he directly informed Phoenix managing partner Robert Sarver earlier this week that he would prefer to continue his career as a Hawk.
"We had a discussion," Johnson said in his first extended interview about his future since free agency began July 1.
"I did tell them that."
Asked why he wants to leave the Suns after a breakthrough season, for himself and the team, Johnson said: "It's a lot of things. How things were handled [with Johnson's contract] last summer, how things have been handled this summer. There's been some things going on that aren't great."
Informed late Friday of Johnson's comments, Suns officials declined to respond.
Johnson hoped to sign a six-year, $50 million extension with Phoenix before last season, but the talks stalled with the sides about $5 million apart. At the time, Sarver was hesitant to make another splashy expenditure after committing to front the $400 million purchase of the franchise and then signing Nash and Quentin Richardson to long-term deals worth a combined $110 million.
The Suns offered Johnson a six-year deal in the $60 million range this summer, some $30 million less than he's eligible to receive from his current team. Hoping for significantly more after averaging 17.1 points and shooting 48 percent on 3-pointers to help Phoenix win a stunning 62 games and advance to the Western Conference finals, Johnson and agent Arn Tellem quickly entered into negotiations with the Hawks.
According to sources close to the situation, Johnson is also unhappy with what he perceives as his standing as a "fourth wheel" behind the All-Star trio of Nash, Amare Stoudemire and Marion. Besides the opportunity to be the star man on its youthful roster, Atlanta is offering as much as the rules allow without holding Johnson's Larry Bird rights -- a frontloaded five-year deal worth an estimated $70 million, with an up-front payment as high as $20 million in Year 1.
The Hawks have been planning for weeks to sign Johnson to an offer sheet as soon as the leaguewide moratorium on free-agent signings is lifted. That day, originally scheduled for July 22, is expected to come Tuesday.
The Suns, who would have seven days to match an offer sheet, have consistently said they intend to do just that, and NBA front-office sources reiterated Friday that Phoenix hasn't changed its stance.
Even Johnson, when asked to describe the Suns' reaction to his request to be set free, said: "They say they're going to match."
Phoenix chairman Jerry Colangelo and team president Bryan Colangelo delivered that message to Tellem in a July 9 meeting during a summer-league game in Las Vegas. To increase its matching flexibility, Phoenix agreed Wednesday to trade center Jake Voskuhl to Charlotte and thus remove nearly $2 million from next season's payroll.
It remains to be seen whether Johnson will indeed sign with the Hawks as soon the moratorium ends. If he is intent on going to Atlanta, he and Tellem could choose to hold off on signing the offer sheet in an attempt to draw an improved contract offer out of the Suns or to convince the Suns to engage Atlanta in sign-and-trade talks.
A sign-and-trade could ultimately appeal to the Suns as well, if they decide over the weekend that Johnson's let-me-go plea is more than a mere statement of frustration with negotiations. It's unlikely they would be willing to lose one of their prized assets without compensation, even if management changes course and determines that it's best to sever ties with a player who says he wants to leave.
Johnson, though, insists that his play and commitment to the Suns wouldn't be affected if a signed Hawks offer sheet results in a return to the desert.
"I would come back and work as hard as I ever have," Johnson said. "If they match, all this stuff is behind me from that minute on. I hope everybody [in Phoenix] puts everything behind them, too."
The prospect of Johnson switching teams made Friday's inaugural Steve Nash Foundation Charity Classic perhaps the last time Nash, Marion and Johnson will play together as teammates. Stoudemire was also scheduled to play but joined Philadelphia's Allen Iverson as a late withdrawal.
"I'm really trying not to think about that," Nash said. "No one wants us to keep Joe more than I do. I've been talking to him and trying to persuade him to stay, because we really have a special thing going in Phoenix, but I want whatever he feels is best for him."
Nash added that Johnson's new public stance doesn't change how much his teammates want him to stay, repeating his oft-cited belief that Johnson's shooting and ballhandling skills are as important to the Suns' success as Nash's chemistry with finishers Stoudemire and Marion.
Marion echoed that, saying: "I understand that this is a business and everybody's got to do [what's best] for their family, but we're hoping Joe don't need nothing more than a Suns jersey next year."
"They're in my ear every five minutes," Johnson said with a laugh, referring to persistent lobbying from Nash and Marion.
Some league executives have privately questioned whether the Suns would indeed match a max offer sheet to Johnson, given Sarver's stated aversion to letting his annual payroll stray far beyond $50 million. With Johnson earning an average annual wage of $12 million and Stoudemire soon to receive a maximum contract extension that would kick in starting with the 2006-07 season, Phoenix would be in the rare position of carrying four players who earn roughly $50 million by themselves.
If Johnson winds up with the Hawks, Nash plans to intensify his efforts to recruit Michael Finley of the Dallas Mavericks as a replacement. Unless the Mavericks can trade Finley first, in hopes of keeping Finley out of the Western Conference, they are expected to use the new amnesty clause to release the 32-year-old and spare themselves from nearly $52 million in luxury-tax payments.
The Hawks, dating to last summer, have had no success in their high-dollar attempts to land a prominent restricted free agent. Yet they remain quietly hopeful that they'll soon be able to play Johnson as a point guard should they finally score this time.
Johnson's playmaking ability is viewed by scouts as a critical component to the Suns' success. Phoenix doesn't have another dependable ballhandler to punish opponents who try to force the ball out of Nash's hands.
"I love the idea," Johnson said. "I'd love that, having the ball in my hands. I think I'm a great shooter, but that's where I think I'm most effective, making decisions."
Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here. Also, click here to send a question for possible use on ESPNEWS