Judge gives Hawks, Thrashers more flexibility in ruling

ATLANTA -- The Atlanta Hawks and Atlanta Thrashers were given significant added flexibility on Tuesday in their ability to trade and sign players.

The Maryland judge who last week ruled the teams couldn't sign a free agent to a deal longer than one year changed that to four years. But the Hawks and Thrashers cannot go over the salary cap in order to sign a player.

It was not known what prompted the new ruling Tuesday from Montgomery County (Md.) Circuit Court Judge Eric Johnson.

"We now have the needed flexibility to be able to enter into player transactions for both teams," said Bernie Mullin, the president of the NBA and NHL clubs.

Mullin added that Hawks general manager Billy Knight and Thrashers general manager Don Waddell have been notified of the new ruling and will pursue deals in an effort to improve both teams.

Even before Tuesday's change, the Hawks and Thrashers were fairly confident they could put together rosters as planned for the coming year. The Hawks had already initiated negotiations with free-agent point guard Speedy Claxton, and the team is expected to announce Wednesday that Claxton has been signed to a four-year deal. That was planned before Johnson's ruling.

The Thrashers had already finished most of their free-agent negotiations, too, for next season.

However, without the added flexibility, the Hawks likely would have had difficulty negotiating a sign-and-trade deal involving free-agent forward Al Harrington. It would have been a significant blow to the team to lose Harrington without receiving any compensation.

Johnson's new ruling specified that the Hawks can enter a sign-and-trade deal that would bring the team a new contract of up to four years.

Last month, Johnson said Boston businessman Steve Belkin is entitled to buy the Hawks and Thrashers from his former co-owners. The judge has said the current ownership and management team should retain control while the appeals are heard.

Any new free-agent signing of more than four years during the appeal must now be approved by Belkin.

The judge has ordered the current owners to post an appeal bond of $11.4 million to protect Belkin against any decrease in the value of the franchises during the appeal. Johnson said Tuesday the bond must be paid by July 20.

Johnson ruled last month the ownership group did not abide by the terms of an agreement to buy out Belkin. The judge said the group's actions triggered Belkin's right to buy them out.

The appeal of last month's ruling could last a year or longer.