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tiggerpolice 08-16-2005 04:37 PM

Hornets should get ready in case Johnson falls free
Hornets should get ready in case Johnson falls free
Thursday, August 11, 2005
John DeShazier

Like manna, Joe Johnson falls, likely there for the taking for any NBA team starved for his services. And the Hornets are still hungry.

Are they hungry enough to try to do some late feasting?

Johnson doesn't want to return to the Suns, having told the franchise not to match the five-year, $69.2 million contract offer sheet he received from Atlanta. And what Phoenix will take in a sign-and-trade deal for one of the most versatile players in the league is fairly paltry: a $4.9 million exception, two first-round picks and a starter or substitute such as Boris Diaw, who isn't half the player Johnson is.

But Johnson still is on the market, courtesy of the Hawks, whose ownership group has thoroughly butchered the deal that would've sent him from the team with the most regular-season victories last season to the one with the least.

Which means the Hornets, or any team with money to spend, still have a chance to swoop in and pluck Johnson, who wouldn't be human if he hasn't soured at least a little on Atlanta as a franchise and destination.

If he could be talked into joining the Hawks, there's no reason to believe he would close the door in the face of the Hornets without listening to a sales pitch. Especially not now, after Atlanta has embarrassed itself and caused people to question the wisdom of Johnson, who thought he had a done deal but now must be wondering what direction a team is going when it has an ownership group such as the Hawks.

It's not too late for the Hornets to chase, and it won't be until every "i" is dotted and every "t" is crossed.

And that could take awhile. Long enough, probably, for the Hornets to slip in and pirate off the bona fide difference-maker that they didn't sign during the offseason.

Although the Hawks envision him as a point guard, Johnson seamlessly could fit in with New Orleans as an offense-initiating small forward who can shift to the point or off guard when the situation warrants.

Atlanta today is a house divided, one side convinced that the other wants to operate on the cheap, the other claiming that giving up two first-round picks for Johnson is too steep a price to pay.

Steve Belkin, one of nine members of the group that owns the Hawks, serves as the team's NBA governor and won't approve the deal. He's the only owner who won't sign off, but since he speaks on behalf of the team in its dealings with the league and has been granted a preliminary injunction by a Boston judge that prohibits the others from removing him as the governor, it hasn't happened.

Meanwhile, Johnson dangles.

"It's pretty obvious we're going through a divorce right now," Hawks part-owner Bruce Levenson commented to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "I would hope, sooner rather than later, (Belkin) comes to the realization that . . . all that needs to be worked out now is the property settlement."

And Belkin issued a statement as he left the courtroom in Boston on Tuesday: "I am pleased that the judge's ruling has provided clarity that we all needed regarding our decision-making and governance structure so that we can get back to the challenging task of building a championship caliber team."

If Belkin has his way, Johnson won't be a part of that building process.

Belkin would rather take his chances on the unknown instead of the better known, even though there's no guarantee either pick will be the next LeBron or KG, even though the first-rounder just as easily could become Bo Kimble or Harold Minor or Darko Milicic or Kwame Brown.

Which means the window leading to Johnson is open.

Now is a good time for the Hornets to try to crawl through.

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