Stern must officiate Hawks, Joe Johnson situation

Updated: August 11, 2005, 5:05 PM ET
By Marc Stein | ESPN.com

Three prominent parties will be plunged into varying degrees of disarray if the Joe Johnson sign-and-trade implodes.

The surest move to ensure that the Atlanta Hawks, Phoenix Suns and Johnson dodge that disarray is the removal of Steve Belkin as the Hawks' representative on the NBA Board of Governors.

That is why, as of Wednesday, several sources close to the endangered deal still believe that Belkin will eventually lose his governor status -- with a nudge from NBA commissioner David Stern -- to push the trade through in coming days.

An official intervention from Stern isn't expected until Thursday at the earliest, but the Hawks immediately sought his involvement after Boston judge Allan van Gestel blocked the attempt of Belkin's Atlanta ownership partners to oust the Boston-based Belkin as team governor. The Hawks responded to that ruling by voting to strip Belkin of his governor's seat anyway and then turning to Stern with a written request to support that step.

The league has resisted the urge to intervene until now, maintaining that it's up to the Hawks to resolve their own internal mess. Yet it's clear that they can't, and it likewise appears van Gestel prefers the NBA to govern itself in this matter before rendering a legal ruling. Belkin's request for a preliminary injunction to block his ouster was granted in part because the Hawks did not come to court with "prior approval" from Stern to make that move.

"I assume the NBA is concerned about teams in chaos," van Gestel said during Tuesday's proceedings. "But that's why they get paid bigger bucks than I do."

The onus, then, has been placed on Stern to step in to referee. How will he react? The strong suspicion in circulation is that he'll move to prevent Belkin, a part-owner, from blocking a trade sought by everyone else in the organization, largely to get this chaos out of the news as quickly as possible. Yet it's uncertain how far Stern would go, assuming he and his league lawyers feel they have a case to step in.

Stern could decide he has sufficient cause to take governor privileges away from Belkin, a part-owner who's defying the two-thirds majority of the Hawks' three-headed ownership structure by refusing to sign off on the trade for the restricted free agent.

Other options include calling for a Board of Governors vote to rule on Belkin's status or simply a direct, private order from the commissioner for Belkin to act upon the majority's wishes on this trade until the Hawks' three ownership groups can negotiate a divorce. Yet another course is Stern and his aides taking a lead role in hammering out that divorce.

Which is where this is obviously headed. It's impossible to envision how these three ownership wings could work together after all this, whether or not the Johnson trade is consummated.

There were concerns from the start about the feasibility of these three disparate entities coexisting -- one based in Washington owning 40 percent of the club, another in Atlanta holding 30 percent and Belkin with his 30 percent stake. Those fears were soon realized through months of feuding that prompted Stern to scold them all in April.

Only now the discord has escalated into a farce of historic proportions.

The partnership calls for each of the three ownership factions to have an equal vote on club matters. NBA rules, however, specify that one representative per team -- usually the team governor -- conveys the wishes of the club to the league office on trades, signings, etc. Because Belkin is that representative for the Hawks, he has been able to block the trade on a technicality, even though he was outvoted 2-1 by his partners on the deal proposed by general manager Billy Knight.

Belkin's public position against the trade is that the Hawks are giving up too much by agreeing to send Boris Diaw and two conditional future first-round picks to Phoenix in exchange for Johnson, who would first sign a five-year, $70 million contract with the Suns that features an up-front balloon payment of $20 million. The arrangement would also create a one-year trade exception worth nearly $5 million for the Suns to apply to a future deal.

As stated in this cyberspace Friday, it doesn't really matter whether Belkin is someday proved correct that the Hawks are overextending for Johnson, who's not yet a proven franchise player. If he wanted the right to veto deals presented by his GM, Belkin should have purchased more than a 30 percent stake in the team. Seventy percent of ownership wants the deal, knowing that a sign-and-trade is the only sure way to acquire Johnson given his status as a restricted free agent.

The very nature of restricted free agency holds that a team might have to exceed market value to land the player it seeks because the incumbent team has the right to match any offer sheet. While a handful of league executives have privately questioned whether Suns managing partner Robert Sarver would indeed match a five-year, $70 million offer sheet to what some consider his fourth-best player, a more widespread sentiment suggests that Sarver's top two executives -- chairman Jerry Colangelo and team president Bryan Colangelo -- would convince the new owner that matching a top-dollar offer is far more palatable than losing an asset like Johnson without compensation.

The situation, of course, grows infinitely more complicated if Stern decides he doesn't have the license to impeach Belkin. Or if Belkin's temporary injunction against his removal becomes legally permanent no matter how the league office rules.

Either of those scenarios undoubtedly kills the trade and sets up numerous nightmares for everyone involved.

The Hawks would lose their guarantee of landing a talented 6-foot-8 swingman who has the ability to play three positions. Worse yet, they probably miss out on the first marquee free agent in memory who actually wants to be a Hawk, making Johnson more valuable to Atlanta than Belkin cares to consider.

Belkin's survival, besides alienating what's left of the Hawks' tiny fan base and setting up more nasty battles to determine who's leaving the ownership triangle, would also lead to Knight's dismissal or resignation and the bigger problem of replacing him. Why would any decent GM or coach want to work for an owner who so readily undermines his basketball people?

There would be looming complications for the Suns and Johnson, too. If the trade is dissolved and the Hawks revert to their original plan of extending Johnson an offer sheet, numerous questions arise. Would Johnson, who has already stunned many league observers by choosing Atlanta over Phoenix, really be willing to sign with a Belkin-led franchise? Then again, who else on the open market has the money to make him a substantial offer? Could the Suns and Johnson, furthermore, find a way to mend fences if both sides realize -- after more than a week of emotional public discourse detailing how they agreed to part ways -- that the player has nowhere else to go?

These are all issues that the league, as you can imagine, wants no part of. Which explains why sources close to the Hawks, Suns and Johnson all continue to express fingers-crossed confidence that the trade will go through in its original form. Hawks officials, sources said, have remained in frequent contact with Johnson in recent days, trying to assure him that the entire organization (apart from Belkin) remains eager for his arrival.

Yet it should be fairly evident now that there are no certainties here … apart from confirmation of the sentiment shared by one Hawks insider who promised last week that "this thing gets worse before it gets better."

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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