If not more talented, the NBA’s 2010 free agent class is at least deeper and could change the direction of the League more than any class since 2000, a group led by Tim Duncan, Grant Hill, Jason Kidd, Reggie Miller and Tracy McGrady.
With so much attention being paid to LeBron (the best player and biggest media star), D-Wade (#2 on both fronts) and Chris Bosh (the superstar who seems most likely to change uniforms) looking ahead to next summer, many have overlooked the rest of the crop: Manu Ginobili, Ray Allen, Carlos Boozer, Shaq, T-Mac, Marcus Camby, Derek Fisher, Jermaine O’Neal and Rafer Alston are among the unrestricted FA’s; Rajon Rondo, LaMarcus Aldridge, Luis Scola, Rudy Gay, Randy Foye and Ronnie Brewer lead the group of (barring contract extensions this fall) restricted FA’s; and others like Amar’e Stoudemire, Paul Pierce, Dirk Nowitzki, Josh Howard, Yao Ming, Michael Redd, Richard Jefferson, Peja Stojakovic, Kenyon Martin and T.J. Ford have player or team options on their contracts that could put them on the market in 2010.
But one of the biggest chips on the table, one who can immediately turn one team into a title contender or become the face of another franchise — and, naturally, the one nobody is talking about — is Joe Johnson.
The last time J.J. was a free agent, he was an invaluable piece of what could’ve been a championship puzzle in Phoenix. Faced with staying in that role or taking franchise-player money to be The Man in Atlanta, he chose the latter. Back then, Johnson was criticized for choosing money over winning, but look at what’s happened since: The Hawks are a rising mid-level contender in the East, while the Suns are going in the opposite direction, fresh off the Lottery and toeing the line of rebuilding.
The Hawks have been trying to secure an extension with Johnson, but if nothing happens before Oct. 31, he’s headed toward the open market in 2010 as an unrestricted free agent.
At 28 years old, with a little more than 600 NBA games on his ledger and not many injuries in his past, Johnson is still fresh in his prime. In what some would consider a down year, he still averaged 21.4 points and 5.8 assists and took Atlanta to the second round of the playoffs, making his third straight All-Star Game along the way. An inconsistent postseason run (16.4 ppg) have some questioning whether he’s truly a player who can carry a winning team, but on a day-to-day basis, Johnson is right there with Brandon Roy, Vince Carter and the rest of the second-tier shooting guards in the League behind Kobe and Wade.
For teams like Houston, Chicago and New York that are clearing up cap space in hopes of landing one of the Big Three, Johnson would be a solid Plan D if the James/Wade/Bosh pitches don’t work out. For teams like Cleveland and Miami who might lose their superstars, Johnson wouldn’t be the worst replacement to fill those voids. I could also see Detroit offering Rip Hamilton and Tayshaun Prince in a sign-and-trade with Atlanta in an effort to fully re-make the Pistons and bring in an identifiable go-to guy; or Indiana offering Troy Murphy and Mike Dunleavy Jr. (in case Tyler Hansbrough develops the way Indiana likes and makes Murphy expendable) to pair Danny Granger up with another All-Star.
Either way (barring an extension with Atlanta, of course), Johnson will make a splash on the free agent market. Maybe not as loud as LeBron or Wade or Bosh, but arguably just as significant in the long run.