The Curious Case of a Joe Johnson extension

Sekou Smith is reporting that the Hawks are in talks to extend Joe Johnson before he hits unrestricted free agency next summer. Jeff Schultz has immediately put out a cease and desist order on the whole thing saying

There’s no need to commit now. Let Johnson prove he’s the player he needs to be to earn that kind of money. If he doesn’t prove it next year, no other team is going to blow him away in negotiations any way. If he does prove it, then give him the world. And if he proves it and turns down the world from the Hawks, then obviously he never wanted to be here anyway.

The whole extending of Joe is a very convoluted, dark issue. It is one that easily gets a fan talking like a guy in a suit rather than a guy in a jersey. We start weighing what Joe has done and what he will do on a pro and con level and all of a sudden we are not fans. We are just cost benefit gurus.

But Joe's future with the team so directly effects the overall direction it is hard not to delve into these waters. So without minimizing the impact our good man Joe has had on the team and the fans, it is time to step back and see how the Hawks can best go about dealing with Johnson.

Joe is still in the prime of his career so getting sentimental about how he has helped drag (basically by himself for a few years) the team from laughing stock to seven national tv games is pretty irrelevant. We are not talking about giving Tom Glavine one more year. Joe's next contract is going to be max money or close to it.

Saying thanks but no thanks

I have long been in this camp. I think the Mike Woodson/Joe Johnson mindset of substitution has worn down Joe's body. He is an old 28. He has averaged more than 39 minutes each of the last six years. Plus his effectiveness has begun to wain. Joe takes more shots to get less points these days. I figured some GM was willing to ignore these stats and overpay for an in decline Joe, and the Hawks could comfortably say good bye and feel good about it. Joe did what we payed him to do. He made the Hawks relevant again.

But then what?

The NBA salary cap is pretty much rocket science. I don't know how it works. But what I do know is that next summer the Hawks will be very close to the top of the cap and that you cannot go over the cap without using a myriad of exceptions and that if you use too many of those exceptions you have to pay a luxury tax and the Atlanta spirit are not going to do that. That is all I got.

So the Hawks need an exception next summer to do just about anything. Luckily, the Larry Bird rule allows teams to go over the cap to sign their own players. I have no idea why, but the Hawks can do it. They can have Joe back. The problem is if they let Joe go they are not really going to be able to sign anyone of equal or half as equal value. You do not just get to shed contract and spend that money. That would be too easy.

Even if I think Joe is on the downward track, I don't think he is in free fall by any means, and Jamal Crawford and Mo Evans at the two guard is not exactly a picture perfect replacement of Joe if he walks.

So we do what exactly?

I am with Schultz. I do not think Joe is worth a max contract a year before he is a free agent. I would be much more comfortable with a nine  11-12 million dollar a year deal. That would be a reasonable salary to keep Joe and a reasonable one to trade if necessary.

The only way this is possible is if Joe looks at the economy and the teams that can spend money and he decides Atlanta is worth a hometown discount.

The other possibility is to risk the free agent market, and losing Joe for nothing (which would be truly the only unacceptable outcome). Not that many teams are going to have the ability to sign Joe outright without a sign and trade. The economy and shrinking salary cap is basically putting restricted status on all but the very elite players.

In the end

It is time for the organization to think creatively. They have had the fairly easy task of just needing to sign the players they drafted (and Sund has executed that task well). However, if they just follow course and max Joe out because they think the team, its fans, and the surrounding players cannot function without him, they have over payed for Josh and Marvin and ignored the overall climate of the NBA. Every playoff team has a best player, but they don't all have a cornerstone player.

A lot of options exist, including bringing Joe back, but they are not all good options. And the lazy move here is the worst of them all. 

Update! With another point of view: Bret is ready to wave the white flag if a max extension goes down.

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