Owner making mess of Hawks' offseason

Updated: August 5, 2005, 5:30 PM ET
By Marc Stein | ESPN.com

There can only be one outcome in the Joe Johnson-to-Atlanta saga.

There can only be one outcome, that is, which spares the Hawks from irreparable damage as opposed to their usual doses of mere empty-arena humiliation.

The Hawks have to emerge from this nightmare with Johnson as their point guard … and with Steve Belkin stripped of any decision-making power.

Joe Johnson
The Joe Johnson snafu would be bad news for Hawks fans ... if there were any.

It is no longer enough for the Hawks to simply push the trade through, which is what everyone close to the deal -- except Belkin, of course -- still nervously hopes for by sometime next week.

On top of completing a trade that was agreed to days ago, Atlanta must oust Belkin, buy him out, impeach him as team governor. Whatever.

Belkin, as the Hawks' representative on the NBA Board Governors, was given final say on player signings and trades when the new three-pronged group assumed control of the franchise March 31, 2004. Not every team empowers its governor in this manner, but Belkin -- in what ranks as a swap of monster significance given how far Atlanta has fallen -- is refusing to sign off on a sign-and-trade with Phoenix that has the support of everyone else in the organization who matters.

Only now there's more at stake than sabotaging a deal that would bring the moribund Hawks a young, promising free agent who A) plays three positions and B) actually wants to play in Atlanta.

If Belkin stays, who is going to be willing to do business with the Hawks?

How will Hawks general manager Billy Knight be able to convince his front-office counterparts that any future trade will reach done-deal status if the Hawks' governor, acting in opposition to everyone he works with, reserves the right to back out at the last minute?

It doesn't really matter whether Belkin's belief that Atlanta has overextended for Johnson, who's not yet a proven franchise player, is someday proved correct. When you're a bad team with little to offer apart from money, especially for as long as the Hawks have been bad, you have to overextend sometimes. It's the only way to get players who might be able to stop the losing, and it's certainly preferable to running a team Donald Sterling style, in which an all-set deal gets undone at the last minute by the meddlesome boss.

Johnson is a restricted free agent who had been preparing for weeks to sign a five-year Hawks offer sheet worth $70 million, with a balloon payment of $20 million up front. The Suns, in turn, had been planning for weeks to match the offer, until Johnson implored managing partner Robert Sarver last Thursday not to match it -- a request Johnson revealed the following day to ESPN.com while in Toronto for teammate Steve Nash's charity game.

Phoenix then changed course and decided that $70 million is a steep price for a player who doesn't want to be in Phoenix, especially with a slew of big contracts already on the books. So Suns president Bryan Colangelo, unwilling to lose a prized asset without compensation, struck a sign-and-trade arrangement with Knight to send Johnson to Atlanta for Boris Diaw, two conditional first-round draft choices and a trade exception worth nearly $5 million. The deal appealed to Knight because it ensured that the Hawks would get their man, without having to sign Johnson to an offer sheet, wait seven days and risk coming away with nothing.

Belkin, though, says Knight is parting with too much, in addition to the money promised Johnson. Overriding the overwhelming majority in his organization on a technicality, Belkin won't give his GM the go-ahead he needs based on the Hawks' power structure. (It must be said, though, that Belkin holding veto power when he's not the majority owner means the rest of Atlanta's, uh, brain trust has some explaining of its own to do.)

It has been suggested in Atlanta that Belkin, who has been feuding for months with the other two main factions in the Hawks' ownership ranks, is delaying the trade in an attempt to sweeten the buyout package he'd receive from the owners who want to remove him. Yet that assumes his main motivation is money.

Others who know Belkin well suggest otherwise. They note that Belkin has dreamed of NBA ownership for years, winding up with the Hawks only after a failed bid to buy the Celtics in partnership with Larry Bird. It's difficult to imagine, given the negative publicity from this flap, that the league would let him back in as an owner in another city … or that he could even find new partners to make a run at another team.

This, then, is looking like Belkin's NBA Alamo, which explains why he's fighting his ouster so stubbornly. Upon learning that the rest of the Hawks' ownership was planning a Friday vote to strip Belkin of his governor privileges, the Bostonian filed a restraining order in a Massachusetts court. That court is demanding that the Hawks "desist and refrain" from voting Belkin out until a Tuesday morning hearing.

Little wonder one Hawks insider expects "this thing gets worse before it gets better."

How bad can it get? If the Johnson deal falls through, one scenario could find the Hawks scrambling to give away some $12 million in a combination of one-year deals just to get to the league-mandated minimum of $37.125 million in salaries for next season.

Yet that would only be the start of the misery if Belkin wins the battle. The Hawks will never have a hope of attracting decent talent, and thus a decent crowd to Philips Arena, if executives and agents out there can't believe what Knight tells them.

"Obviously," Hawks CEO Bernie Mullin said at a Thursday news conference, "it's a concern at this point in time.

"It's not a concern in the long term."

Don't be surprised if NBA commissioner David Stern feels the need to intervene. The implication from Mullin, either way, is that the Hawks will survive this crisis by soon negotiating an end to the Belkin Era, or at the very least render him silent.

As part of a group known as the Atlanta Spirit LLC, Belkin holds a 30 percent stake in the franchise. Representatives from the other two ownership entities -- who combine to control 70 percent of the Hawks -- publicly expressed confidence Thursday that the trade will be salvaged.

Sources close to Johnson, meanwhile, insist the 24-year-old and his influential agent, Arn Tellem, still expect the trade to be rammed through.

The Suns cling to the same expectation, having given Atlanta extra incentive by vowing to match and keep Johnson if Belkin forces the Hawks to back out of the trade in an attempt to revert to the original offer sheet.

Not that the Hawks should really need any added motivation. If they hope to take their first firm step away from years of laughingstock status, they must know they cannot dare to lose the first marquee free agent in memory who says he longs to be a Hawk.

They also have to see, even more clearly after this week, that an overcrowded boardroom can be far more dispiriting than a half-empty building. It can be downright destructive.

Which is why overruling Belkin is only half of the project.

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.

Marc Stein | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com
• Senior NBA writer for ESPN.com
• Began covering the NBA in 1993-94
• Also covered soccer, tennis and the Olympics

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