SI Vault
Jackie MacMullan
February 22, 1999
Getting to Point A Top free-agent guard Kevin Johnson is on the speed dial of many G.M.s
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February 22, 1999

The Nba

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Shoot! Darn!
Thanks in part to the NBA's radically abbreviated training camps, shooting has gone from bad to worse. Scoring is down nearly five points per team per game (95.6 to 91.0) from last season, underscoring a four-year slide in all major shooting categories. Moving quickly to stay in front of this trend, Orlando has dropped its Free Big Mac Magic # from 99 points to 90 this season. Did somebody say airballs?





















Getting to Point A
Top free-agent guard Kevin Johnson is on the speed dial of many G.M.s

Free-agent point guard Kevin Johnson is watching a lot of NBA games on television these days, methodically surfing the channels, evaluating his suitors, trying to imagine himself wearing this or that uniform.

His phone rings every day. He could have played for Sacramento yesterday, and he could play for Golden State tomorrow. The Clippers, Knicks, Lakers, Pistons, Rockets and Sonics have all called. But, still, he just won't make a commitment. "For me to play again, it has to be a great situation," Johnson says. "I'm not going to play just to play."

The optimal situation probably slipped away early in the free-agent frenzy, when the Lakers, a contending team close to Johnson's Sacramento roots, told KJ they would love to have him and would pay him the veterans' exception of $1.75 million. "It was a great opportunity" he says, "but the Lakers wanted to move quickly, and I wanted more time to evaluate everything." L.A. signed veteran Derek Harper instead.

KJ, who made $8 million last year, knows he'll make significantly less this year—if he signs—and insists that money is not his primary motivation. The ring's the thing, so when Seattle talked about bringing him in to back up perennial All-Star Gary Payton, Johnson listened. The hitch: Payton plays workhorse minutes, and the Sonics worried about how KJ would handle fewer minutes and fewer shots. Those doubts have also been raised in Houston, where a team that has Scottie Pippen, Hakeem Olajuwon and Charles Barkley doesn't need another scorer; it needs a guy who can get those players the ball and then get out of their way.

KJ waves off those misgivings. "I can adapt my game," he says. "My goal is to win a championship. Whatever I have to do to get there is fine. I think I proved that last year when I played so much two guard for Phoenix. I didn't like playing there at all, but I did it because it was what the team needed."

The Pistons like KJ, but they, too, are seeking a pass-first guard. Nevertheless KJ has been studying the Pistons via his dish, and he wonders if they have what it takes to go all the way. "I'm trying to figure out the direction they are going in," he says. "Are they looking for a point guard who can spot up the way [Lindsey] Hunter does? Do they want Grant Hill to handle the ball as much as he does now, or would they like someone else to help him?"

In handicapping contenders for the title—and for his services—Johnson has made one firm determination. "In this shortened season it will be hard for teams who haven't been together very long to do well in the playoffs," he says, "and the Pistons made a lot of changes." New York, which has also shaken up its roster, had expressed interest in Johnson, but team sources say the only way KJ will become a Knick is if either starting point Charlie Ward or backup Chris Childs goes down with an injury or Childs is traded. Seattle has not shut the door on Johnson, but its interest wanes with each three-pointer that falls for rookie Moochie Norris (page 84).

Although KJ has no firm timetable, he knows that the longer he waits, the less likely he is to sign with anybody. Yet he continues to deliberate, continues to work out on his own at the downtown YMCA in Phoenix. One twisted ankle or tweaked knee could immediately change the complexion of a contender, so KJ sits back in front of his television and waits. He admits that he's a bit surprised by how ragged the play has been in the early going. "There are a lot of nights," KJ says, "when I'm watching those games and I'm glad I'm not in them."

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