This is Joe Johnson, and to me he is the go-to warring (if not warning) story, as we enter a summer that will see the NBA locking out its players in order to re-structure a more palatable collective bargaining agreement.
Last summer, with potential bidders from New York and Chicago calling outside Johnson's door, the Atlanta Hawks decided to go all-in with a massive contract for the free agent All-Star, handing him $123 million over six years. To hear sources around the Hawks tell it, they weren't thrilled with the deal, either, but they couldn't not sign Johnson again, right?
They had to keep the team together with Josh Smith already on his second contract and a great deal of veterans already dotting the roster. Plus, declining to re-sign Johnson wouldn't have resulted in any sort of cap space for the Hawks as it was, and Jamal Crawford would have probably ended up making some of that money back with a contract extension of his own.
Ryen Russillo, a basketball mind I trust a great deal, often talks on his NBA Today podcast about how the Hawks had no choice but to bring Johnson back, while stressing that the team's front office wasn't exactly doing backflips when Johnson put pen to paper. They knew it was a tough deal, too. But Russillo sticks with the idea that Atlanta had no choice. Had to bring the guy back.
Well, no. No they didn't.
I understand the basketball end of things, and how the lack of salary cap space following the Hawks declining Johnson's deal would have prevented Atlanta from adding to their team, but in financial terms there was absolutely no reason to bring Johnson back at this price. As dodgy as things would be in Atlanta's first year without Johnson, they wouldn't be nearly as bad as in the sixth year of a contract with Joe making, what, 45 percent of the salary cap?
NBA teams, by and large, are not operating as hopeful money-makers, or even break-even'ers. They want to win, even if it only means 45 wins. That's a nice sentiment, all that winning, until you realize that NBA owners and personnel bosses often make some pretty terrible miscalculations when it comes to building and/or sustaining a winner.
This is what you have to keep in mind when the league locks out its players this summer, and when David Stern complains to Steve Aschburner Wednesday night about teams losing money, and about how unacceptable this is:
"We're not going to lose any money," Stern said. "I'm not going to be commissioner of a league that is comfortable [losing money]. Because I don't have a group of owners who find it acceptable for me to have that conversation with them."
That sounds nice and tough and all, but when a confluence of events (like several teams dumping cap space to go after LeBron James, then being left with plenty of space to go after second or third-tier stars like Johnson) leads to the decision to double the amount that a guy's probably worth in order to keep him in the fold, or to let him go without compensation, you have to just take it for what it is, and admit defeat at the hands of some bad timing. Stern wants to ensure that teams can choose to refuse to admit defeat, throwing money all over the place, while getting to cry to the league later in order to be bailed out.
While the league's fans, and the thousands of people that make their living depending on games being played every other night, suffer. All so the Hawks can save face, toss a ton of money at Joe Johnson, and still have the negotiating rules altered on the back end to service them.
(While forgetting that the rules are already in place to create a great team based on smart personnel choices and intelligence guided by experience when dealing with payroll. Look at a team like Memphis, that refuses to use restricted free agency to their advantage, and needlessly extended Zach Randolph last month when they could have done so for three-quarters the price following the lockout. They'll be at the vanguard of bitching about how things are set up for the owners to lose money, even though it's their own pay-now-when-you-don't-have-to decisions that have put the Grizzlies in the place they will be, financially.)
It's a joke, and the game will suffer for it. David Stern's not interested in the game, though, at this point. He's interested in his 30 owners, and their bottom lines.
And Joe Johnson? He's not your problem, here.