Latest ruling could pave way for Johnson trade

Updated: August 15, 2005, 12:58 AM ET
By Marc Stein | ESPN.com

Joe Johnson's long-anticipated move from the Phoenix Suns to the Atlanta Hawks moved a significant step closer to completion Friday when a Boston judge reversed a ruling that had given Hawks part-owner Steve Belkin hope of blocking the sign-and-trade arrangement.

Johnson, in fact, traveled to Atlanta on Thursday night in anticipation of finally joining the Hawks, sources close to the situation told ESPN.com. After urging the Suns to let him go, the restricted free agent has been poised for nearly two weeks to sign a five-year, $70 million contract with an up-front payment of $20 million and then leave Phoenix for Atlanta in a swap sending Boris Diaw and two future first-round picks to the desert.

Formal completion of the trade, though, remains on hold until next week.

Suffolk County (Mass.) Superior Court judge Allan van Gestel on Friday dissolved a temporary injuction he had granted Belkin on Tuesday, after receiving an affidavit from NBA commissioner David Stern supporting a request from the Hawks' ownership board to remove Belkin as the team's representative on the NBA Board of Governors.

Yet as part of Friday's ruling, van Gestel also decreed that the Hawks' ownership board "now must comply strictly with the requirements" specified in the club's partnership agreement "to complete Belkin's removal" as team governor.

Those steps include providing written notice to Belkin of his "removable act" -- specifically Belkin's directive to the NBA last week not to proceed with the Johnson trade -- and giving him five business days to rescind that act.

It was not immediately clear if Belkin can now preserve his governor status by notifying the league office to go ahead with the Johnson trade, or if the Hawks will be able to complete their plans to strip Belkin of his governor status. The other two parties in the Hawks' three-headed ownership triangle -- one in Atlanta and another in Washington -- want to replace Belkin as governor with Atlanta-based Michael Gearon Jr.

It was also unclear Friday if the trade, which the teams agreed to in principle on July 30, can be consummated before those five business days elapse. If not, formal completion of the deal might be on hold until next Friday.

The Hawks' ownership agreement states that the groups from Atlanta and Washington and the Boston-based Belkin each hold one equal vote on club matters. Two-thirds of the Hawks' power structure backed the Johnson trade from the start.

NBA rules, however, dictate that every team -- no matter how many owners it has -- must designate one representative to notify the league on player transactions. That representative is typically the team governor.

Belkin, who possesses a 30-percent stake in the franchise, refused to approve the trade, saying the Hawks were giving up too much for Johnson by including the draft picks. Belkin's partners have maintained that his refusal to advise the league office that Atlanta was prepared to complete the trade last Tuesday was an action taken against the majority's wishes and thus grounds for removal.

Amid the ongoing uncertainty regarding Belkin's status, Atlanta management was tight-lipped after van Gestel's ruling. What the Hawks were prepared to acknowledge in a team statement Friday evening is that they "look forward to Joe Johnson becoming a member of the Hawks in the very near future."

Ultimately landing Johnson will be a huge catch for Hawks general manager Billy Knight, who has struggled since last summer to convert his considerable salary-cap space into a marquee acquisition. Having whiffed a year ago in its attempts to score free agents such as Kenyon Martin and Erick Dampier, Atlanta has been quietly optimistic for weeks that it would be able to import Johnson as a point guard to team with its cadre of young swingmen: Al Harrington, Josh Childress, Josh Smith and Marvin Williams, selected No. 2 overall in the June draft.

"I love the [point guard] idea," Johnson told ESPN.com last month, during an interview in which he revealed his desire to leave the Suns after a breakthrough season for the 24-year-old and the team.

"I'd love that, having the ball in my hands," Johnson said. "I think I'm a great shooter, but that's where I think I'm most effective, making decisions."

Losing Johnson is an undeniable blow for the Suns, who have long considered the versatile swingman no less critical to last season's overwhelming success than any of their three All-Stars: Amare Stoudemire, Shawn Marion and Steve Nash. Next to Nash, the league's reigning MVP, Johnson was the only other dependable playmaker on a 62-win team and shot a deadly 47.8 percent from 3-point range.

The Suns, though, will create a valuable $4.9 million trade exception as part of this sign-and-trade arrangement to help in their pursuit of a Johnson replacement.

They also still hope to have a shot at signing former Phoenix draftee Michael Finley, who will be released Monday under the league's new "amnesty clause" by the Dallas Mavericks unless the Mavericks can trade Finley before Monday's amnesty deadline.

Although it would face stiff competition from Miami, Detroit and San Antonio if Finley is waived, Plan A for Phoenix is setting up a four-man platoon (Finley, Diaw, Jim Jackson and the recently signed Raja Bell) to fill the void left by Johnson, whose desire to leave Phoenix stems in part from his wish to have a bigger role than he had with the star-laden Suns.

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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