Johnson Re-Signing Could Hinge Upon Whether Woodson Returns to Hawks
ATLANTA -- The Atlanta Hawks will have two key free agents this summer. Whether the higher-paid one stays could depend on what happens with the lower-paid one.
Star guard Joe Johnson will be a free agent as will Hawks coach Mike Woodson. Johnson said in an interview with FanHouse that whether Woodson returns to Atlanta will play a role in whether he re-signs.
"Of course,'' Johnson said. "That will be one of the factors. (Woodson) was one of the main reasons why I came here (signing as a free agent in 2005). Me and him stayed and talked for a while before I signed. So we'll see. I surely hope him and his coaching staff will be back. Those are guys that I'm very comfortable with and familiar with, and the system that they have us running right now, it's been successful. So hopefully we can keep our core right here.''
Asked if it helps the chances of Johnson re-signing with Atlanta if Woodson remains, Johnson said, "Yeah, definitely. So we'll see what happens. Hopefully everything works out.''
Told of Johnson's comments about Woodson, Hawks owner Michael Gearon Jr. was glad to hear of the respect the team's star has for the coach.
"I'm thrilled to hear that Joe said that,'' Gearon said. "I take that as a positive what he said about Woody.''
But that doesn't mean the Hawks are going to rush to plop down a contract extension on Woodson, whose two-year deal expires after the season, or guarantee he definitely will be offered a new deal this summer.
"I'm never ever going to get boxed in a corner,'' Gearon said.
But Gearon does like Woodson, 202-284 in his sixth season with the Hawks. So does general manager Rick Sund.
Despite the Hawks (49-27) about to reach the 50-win mark for the first time in 12 years, Woodson has not been offered a contract extension because that's not how Sund operates. And that's fine with Gearon.
"Typically, my philosophy is that extensions and contracts are offseason agendas,'' Sund said. "During the season, you don't want distractions. You want to really focus on winning games.''
Sund took over as general manager after the 2007-08 season, and signed Woodson to a two-year contract after many believed he might not be back. Woodson had just led the Hawks to a 37-45 mark and their first playoff appearance in nine years, and likely saved his job by taking eventual champion Boston to seven games in a first-round series.
Sund said he handed out the deal with the understanding there wouldn't be talk of additional years until the contract expired this summer. He's stuck to that through the Hawks going 47-35 last season and winning a playoff series and improving their record again this season even though Woodson wouldn't have minded inking an extension.
"The thing is you like to finish what you started,'' said Woodson, who said he wants to return to the Hawks. "But again, if it was my choice, I'd probably be signed by now. But it's not my choice. It's their choice. So I just got to wait it out and see what happens.''
Woodson insists his contract situation is not a distraction for the team. But he's hopeful he's done enough for the Hawks to want to bring him back.
And Gearon, who said he has a "good relationship with Woody,'' sure doesn't sound like somebody about to let his coach go even if he won't guarantee he'll be offered a new deal.
"We've stuck with him through some very difficult times, and he's under contract now,'' Gearon said. "And I think our objective with this team is stability. We don't want a revolving door of players and coaches.''
Gearon pointed out the Hawks stayed by Woodson even though there were ample calls for his ouster during the four seasons of his first contract. Woodson went 13-69 in 2004-05, 26-56 in 2005-06 and 30-52 in 2006-07 before making the playoffs as the East's No. 8 seed two years ago.
"At the end of the day, my whole thing is I'm very grateful,'' Woodson said. "I've never hid from being grateful for giving me the opportunity to continue to coach this team. I had a goal and a plan when I came in here under (previous general manager) Billy Knight, and pretty much everything that I've said has come true. I even made it clear if I didn't get this team in the playoffs in the four years that I signed that (original) contract, then I didn't deserve to be the coach.
"That isn't the case. We've made major strides over those four years. And here we are now in our sixth year, and we've got a chance to win 50 games. I just believe everything will take care of itself. I'm not money hungry. I'm not money driven ... But I do want security for me and my staff. That's important because we do work hard and we put ourselves in this position. So I just got to think that once (the season is) over, we'll sit down and hopefully iron out something.''
His players hope so. In addition to Johnson, top Atlanta players Jamal Crawford, Mike Bibby, Josh Smith and Al Horford all said they hope Woodson returns.
But there's always a risk. While Woodson said his priority is to return to Atlanta, he will be a free agent, meaning it's not out the question another team could make a better offer even if the Hawks do want him back.
"There is a risk. They do things here a little different, I guess,'' Horford said of the team not wanting to negotiate during the season.
Regardless of what the reason has been for Woodson not being signed for next season, count Johnson as being surprised he isn't.
"Yeah, I'm kind of surprised,'' Johnson said. "Each year, we've grown as a team and as an organization. You have to give Woody and his coaching staff a lot of credit because they've been here since when things weren't that great. And then we started to get players, and you can see that we started to turn it around. So it is a bit surprising. But he'll get his due.''
At least Johnson hopes he will. If not, it won't help his chances of re-signing with the Hawks.
Chris Tomasson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter@christomasson