NBA front-office sources told ESPN.com that the Suns and Hawks have locked into serious trade discussions that could send Johnson to the Eastern Conference via sign-and-trade as early as Tuesday afternoon.
The proposed deal, according to sources, would bring guard Boris Diaw and two lottery-protected future first-round picks to Phoenix -- along with a trade exception in the $5 million range -- after Johnson signs a contract under terms established by Atlanta: $70 million over five years with an estimated balloon payment of $20 million up front.
Johnson, a restricted free agent, has been planning for weeks to sign a five-year, $70 million offer sheet from Atlanta as soon as the league's moratorium on signings is lifted Tuesday at noon. On Thursday, Johnson stunned Suns managing partner Robert Sarver by asking Sarver directly not to match the offer, telling his boss that he prefers to continue his career as a Hawk. On Friday, at teammate Steve Nash's charity game in Toronto, Johnson revealed the request to ESPN.com and spoke excitedly about the opportunity to play point guard with the Hawks.
After maintaining for weeks that it would match any offer sheet Johnson signs, Phoenix chose a new course this weekend, ultimately deciding it was better for team chemistry to pursue a sign-and-trade with Atlanta instead of investing huge sums in a player who wants to leave.
Johnson's increasingly imminent departure is a coup for the desperate Hawks and an undeniable blow to 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 Nash. Next to Nash, the league's newly minted MVP, Johnson was the only other dependable playmaker on a 62-win team and shot a deadly 47.8 percent from 3-point range.
Phoenix, though, has always liked Diaw, a rugged defender and underrated ballhandler from France, and sees him as part of a three- or four-man platoon to replace Johnson, who desires a bigger role than he can have with the star-laden Suns.
Phoenix struck a verbal agreement with Utah's Raja Bell, another defensive specialist with an underrated offensive game, on the first day of free agency. It also still has swingman Jim Jackson, who filled in ably for Johnson during a second-round dismissal of Dallas.
Johnson's exit would likewise spark the Suns to intensify their pursuit of the Dallas Mavericks' Michael Finley. Dallas is expected to waive Finley via the new "amnesty clause" that gives teams a one-time opportunity to release a player without paying any further luxury tax on his contract, unless the Mavericks can trade Finley to an Eastern Conference team before the Aug. 15 deadline for using the amnesty provision.
As an amnesty casualty, Finley would still receive what's left on his Mavericks contract (nearly $52 million) and also have the opportunity to choose his next team in free agency. The list of teams lining up to bid for Finley is a long one, featuring NBA Finals foes San Antonio and Detroit and virtually every other playoff contender in the league, but Phoenix possesses a couple of recruiting advantages.
Finley is received warmly by Suns fans to this day, after Phoenix drafted him No. 21 overall in 1995. The 32-year-old will also be lobbied hard by Nash, who remains one of his closest friends in the league -- along with Dirk Nowitzki -- after the trio's long run together in Dallas. Finley joined Johnson in attendance at Nash's charity game in Toronto, even though his ongoing recovery from June ankle surgery prevented him from playing.
The concern for the Suns is that, with only limited free-agent resources left this summer, they'll be outbid for Finley by most of his suitors.
Landing Johnson, meanwhile, ranks as 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 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 recent draft.
"I love the idea," Johnson told ESPN.com on Friday. "I'd love that, having the ball in my hands. I think I'm a great shooter, but that's where I think I'm most effective, making decisions."
In his first extended interview about his future since free agency began Friday, Johnson said his desire to leave the Suns involves "a lot of things," starting with contentious negotiations on a contract extension last October that broke off with sides about $5 million apart. Johnson was rankled further earlier this month when, after a breakout season for himself and the team, Phoenix offered only $60 million over six years.
Yet sources close to the situation also insist that Johnson is most unhappy with what he perceives as his standing as a "fourth wheel" behind Stoudemire, Marion and especially Nash. The native of nearby Arkansas would instantly have his own team to run in Atlanta and become a franchise face for a club teeming with inexperience.
Because the Hawks are so far under the salary cap, and because Johnson will become a base-year compensation player after signing his new deal, Phoenix won't be required in a trade to take back contracts in the neighborhood of Johnson's first-year salary of $12 million. Diaw has two seasons left on his contract totaling just over $3 million.
On top of the draft picks in the deal, the trade exception -- good for one year -- gives Phoenix the ability to take back more salary in a future trade than it gives up and thus provides another vehicle for acquiring a contributor.
Given Sarver's stated aversion to letting his annual payroll stray far beyond $50 million, replacing Johnson with Bell, Diaw, two draft picks, a trade exception and perhaps even Finley (if the Suns are so fortunate) holds considerable appeal. Although sources insist that Sarver was intent on matching an offer sheet to Johnson, doing so would have put Phoenix in the rare position of carrying four players who earn roughly $50 million by themselves, with Stoudemire soon to receive a maximum contract extension that would kick in starting with the 2006-07 season. And Kurt Thomas, another recent acquisition from New York in a trade for Quentin Richardson, has three seasons left on his deal at an average of more than $7 million.
"You've got to go where you're comfortable," Johnson said Friday in explaining his wish to swap Phoenix for Atlanta.
With the Hawks unable to sign the restricted free agent outright, a sign-and-trade has emerged as the most comfortable compromise for Johnson and the two teams involved.
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.