By Ian Thomsen
July 04, 2010

Joe Johnson's acceptance of the Hawks' six-year offer worth nearly $120 million keeps Atlanta in deep-playoff contention while taking another big name off the board. With his friend Amar'e Stoudemire expected to sign with the Knicks, the list of big-money stars still in play is down to four: LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and Carlos Boozer.

So the pressure builds on the Heat, Nets, Bulls, Knicks and Clippers to innovate solutions for how to spend their max cap space in the week ahead. If James follows the example of Johnson and chooses to stick with the franchise he knows best, there will be one or more teams left with unspent money as the second tier of free agents -- headlined by David Lee, Ray Allen and Shaquille O'Neal -- is drawn into consideration.

The Hawks made a pre-emptive move to keep Johnson by offering him close to $30 million more than he could find on the open market. The deal, to which he verbally committed Sunday, will be criticized as too much money for a player who isn't viewed among the top 10 in the league.

But it is a smart play by Atlanta, which couldn't afford to lose him. The presence of their four-time All-Star and team leader enables the Hawks to approach next season with confidence of reaching the second round of the playoffs for a third straight year. Johnson's raise next season will amount to not quite $2 million, so for the short-term he won't have a disastrous impact on the Hawks' payroll structure.

Had they lost their 29-year-old shooting guard, the Hawks would have surrendered the momentum they've developed around him while improving their record each of the last five years. Consider this an example of a team spending money in order to make money. Apart from the calf injuries that cost him 25 games in 2006-07, Johnson has been a durable star who -- like Ray Allen and other stars in their 30s -- could be moved to a contender over the latter half of his contract, if necessary.

The Hawks and Grizzlies are known as cost-conscious franchises, yet, over the last week, they've committed more than $200 million to re-sign Johnson and Rudy Gay, respectively.

Now the spotlight is focused on the four stars remaining at the top of the market. Miami has famously been trying to land three of them -- Wade, James and Bosh -- but if the Heat are unable at the very least to recruit Bosh or Boozer to join with Wade, then the Bulls and Knicks will be encouraged to make a run at stealing Wade from Miami.

As for the biggest prize of all, James is expected to make his decision anytime after Monday.

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