By Chris Mannix
November 12, 2009

NEW YORK -- Joe Johnson has never been known as a consolation prize. From his days as a well-regarded high school prospect to an All-America at Arkansas, from a lottery pick to an NBA All-Star, Johnson has long been a sought-after commodity.

But with next summer's free-agent bonanza approaching, Johnson, who is in the final year of a five-year, $70 million contract with the Hawks, has largely flown under the radar. Whenever the subject turns to the embarrassment of riches that will hit the market in July, names like LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and Amar'e Stoudemire are tossed around frequently. Rarely is Johnson's name included on those lists.

It should be. Johnson's accomplishments are impressive. He has averaged at least 20 points per game in each of the last four seasons and is averaging 21 points through eight games this year. He led a young Hawks team to its first playoff appearance in nine years in 2007-08 and helped Atlanta advance to the conference semifinals last season.

"He's a very, very good basketball player," said Knicks coach Mike D'Antoni, who coached Johnson for 1½ seasons in Phoenix. "He just does a lot of things. I mean, he was our backup point guard in Phoenix. And he's developed [his] shot to the point where he hardly misses."

Indeed, Johnson's versatility -- particularly offensively -- is his greatest asset. Facing a steady diet of double teams from the Knicks on Wednesday, Johnson still produced 19 points, seven rebounds and five assists in Atlanta's 114-101 victory. And he did it in a variety of ways. In the third quarter, Johnson split a soft double team and flipped home a layup. Early in the fourth quarter, Johnson penetrated, drew a double team and backed off. When the double chased him out on the perimeter, Johnson found Al Horford under the rim for an open dunk. Later, Johnson made his move before the double could arrive and knocked down a 17-foot jump shot over 6-foot-8 Wilson Chandler.

"He's very similar to Vince Carter," Hawks center Jason Collins said. "He can take you anywhere on the court. I didn't realize how good a one-on-one player he is. When you think of Joe sometimes, you think about his days in Phoenix and his spot-up shooting. But he's so good at creating his own shot."

After declining a four-year, $60 million extension offer from the Hawks in September, he may be creating his shots elsewhere next season.

Chicago is planning to make a strong push for Wade, but if Wade elects to return to Miami, the Bulls, who (sorry, John Salmons fans) have a gaping hole at shooting guard, could offer Johnson a max contract and the chance to play with a dynamic point guard (Derrick Rose) and a young, talented frontcourt (Luol Deng, Joakim Noah). Miami could make a play for Johnson if it loses Wade. While the Cavaliers may not have as much cap space as some other teams, they will have (presumably) the lure of playing alongside LeBron. And perhaps Johnson could reunite with D'Antoni in New York.

Atlanta, however, can't afford to lose him. The Hawks have made great strides since Johnson came on board in '05, going from 26 wins in his first season to 47 last year. With a young nucleus of Johnson, Horford, Josh Smith and Marvin Williams, the Hawks have the potential to be contenders in the Eastern Conference well into the next decade.

"This is a good group we have here," Johnson said. "We have unfinished business."

But Johnson is the linchpin, and if last offseason is any indication, re-signing him won't be easy. Even Johnson doesn't sound like someone confident he would be back next season. When asked about his future with the Hawks, Johnson shrugged.

"I don't know," he said.

When pressed about whether re-signing with Atlanta was his first option, Johnson repeated the same response: "I don't know."

The Hawks should know. They should know that opening the vault for any player is a risky proposition. But when it comes to a franchise player like Johnson, they, like the Cavs with LeBron and the Heat with Wade, should know it's a risk worth taking.

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