Phoenix intends to match Atlanta's 5 years, $70 million

Updated: July 11, 2005, 4:15 PM ET
By Marc Stein | ESPN.com

LAS VEGAS -- Joe Johnson's camp was informed Saturday that the Phoenix Suns intend to match Atlanta's expected five-year, $70 million offer to the restricted free agent, according to NBA front-office sources.

Word began spreading Friday at the Vegas Summer League that the Hawks have given Johnson a firm commitment that they'll sign him to a maximum offer sheet on July 22, which the league office has scheduled to be the first day free agents can sign contracts.

The Hawks' offer, sources said, is likely to be front-loaded with a payment as high as $20 million in the first year of the deal. Rules on such payments and other specifics of the deal are also on hold until July 22, when the league announces the salary-cap number for next season.

The rules on contract lengths, however, have already been finalized, and the Hawks are prevented from signing Johnson to a contract longer than five years. A maximum offer from the Suns would span six years at an estimated $90 million, matching the terms Michael Redd received from Milwaukee earlier this week, but sources say Phoenix has offered Johnson closer to $60 million over six seasons.

The Suns have maintained all season that they will match any offer Johnson gets, rating the versatile swingman as no less critical to the team's success than its three All-Stars: Amare Stoudemire, Steve Nash and Shawn Marion. Matching a five-year offer, though, is undoubtedly more palatable than paying Johnson in the Redd range for six.

Various league executives have privately questioned whether the Suns would indeed match a max offer sheet to Johnson, given owner Robert Sarver's stated aversion to letting his annual payroll stray far beyond $50 million. With Johnson earning an average annual wage of $12 million and Stoudemire soon to receive a maximum contract extension that would kick in starting with the 2006-07 season, Phoenix would be in the rare position of carrying four players who earn roughly $50 million by themselves.

Arn Tellem, Johnson's agent, met with Phoenix president Bryan Colangelo and team chairman Jerry Colangelo during the Suns' summer-league game here Saturday against the Los Angeles Clippers. All parties declined to comment.

The Hawks, sources said, are still expected to go ahead with signing Johnson to an offer sheet, hoping that the value of the contract, potential incentive clauses and the up-front payment will prompt Phoenix to change its mind.

The Hawks will also take encouragement from the new collective bargaining agreement, which lessens the risk of signing restricted free agents. Starting this offseason, teams will be given only seven days to match an offer to a restricted free agent, compared to the previous window of 15 days. Teams have been hesitant in the past to sign restricted free agents to offer sheets and then have their free-agent funds potentially tied up for 15 days.

After a breakthrough 62-win season, followed by a trip to the Western Conference finals, Phoenix went into the offseason hoping to re-sign Johnson, sign Stoudemire to the extension and add toughness. The Suns addressed the latter aim by trading swingman Quentin Richardson to the New York Knicks for power forward Kurt Thomas and then reaching a verbal agreement on the first day of the free-agent season with Utah Jazz guard Raja Bell.

The Suns are forbidden from publicly discussing the Bell deal until he officially signs July 22, but team sources have said repeatedly that Bell was targeted to back up Johnson -- not as an insurance policy in case Johnson is let go.

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