In other words: Keep looking, pal. There's no vacancy here. The Spurs were his team, critics be damned. Johnson had overcome doubters who disparaged his size and questioned his ability to hit from the outside. The same criticisms had plagued him in college, at Southern, where he led the NCAA in assists as a junior and senior yet was not drafted. Johnson played for four other NBA teams before carving out a niche with the Spurs under coach Gregg Popovich.
When San Antonio won the championship last June, Johnson proved to be as indispensable as Tim Duncan and David Robinson. He was the quarterback of the best starting five in basketball. "Not the most talented, not the most athletic—just the best," Johnson says. "Because we were like clockwork. Because we knew what the other guy was doing before he did it."
As the Spurs prepare for the stretch run this season, they are seeking that same precision, but the search has been hard without small forward Sean Elliott, who underwent a kidney transplant last summer and was scheduled to return on Tuesday. Injuries to Duncan (abdominal strain), forward Malik Rose (sprained right ankle) and guard Terry Porter (sprained left knee) haven't helped. Popovich must also balance the playing time of the complementary players who got him his first ring (like Johnson and swingman Mario Elie) and those who could win him the next one (Porter and guard Antonio Daniels), knowing that Duncan, a free agent this summer, will look hard at San Antonio's long-term prospects before committing to stay.
San Antonio was 15th in the league in turnovers at week's end (15.4 per game). That ranking is a reflection of the team's mix of old and new players who don't know one another's tendencies. The Spurs' frustrations erupted after a Feb. 15 loss to the Cavaliers, when Johnson and Rose engaged in a heated argument, forcing half-clad teammates to separate them. While such incidents occur frequently in the NBA, they rarely occurred on the Spurs last season. Johnson, 34, endured a flurry of trade rumors before the deadline and was left to chew on one cold fact: If Clippers owner Donald Sterling had been willing to part with guard Derek Anderson, Johnson would be wearing an L.A. uniform right now.
Johnson believes Elliott will be healthy enough to solidify the rotation and get San Antonio, which was 40-23 through Sunday, back to the Finals. If so, he will do so without home court advantage. "By the time we get it together," says Popovich, "we could be the sixth, seventh or eighth seed [in the West]. Do we have enough time? I don't honestly know."
Count on this: Johnson will be the one getting Duncan the ball where he likes it, the one Robinson will trust when the game is on the line. After all, it's still Johnson's team.
John Starks's Odyssey
Will the Gunner Get a Title Shot?
If there is one thing that has defined guard John Starks's 11-year career, it's that no matter how grim things look, you can count on him to keep shooting...and shooting...and shooting. Perhaps that's why many of his peers were surprised when Starks, rather than jack it up for the Bulls, who acquired him from the Warriors on Feb. 16, took his ball and went home to Tulsa on March 6 to await an arbitrator's decision on his future in the NBA. True, Starks's wife is about to deliver their third child, and yes, Starks is suffering from tendinitis in both knees, but the gunner has admitted that if he were playing for a championship-contending team, he'd be suiting up every night.
Starks is seeking to void the remainder of his three-year, $4 million contract (worth roughly $900,000) so that he can join a contender for what's left of the season. He also wants the arbitrator to declare him eligible for the playoffs, even though players obtained after March 1 cannot play in the postseason. The league is adamant that Starks should not be eligible, even if he goes to another team.
When Starks asked Golden State to trade him, he was hoping to hook up with the Heat or the Spurs, teams in the thick of the title hunt that need perimeter help. Instead he was shipped to Chicago as part of the three-way swap that moved Larry Hughes and Billy Owens to the Warriors and Toni Kukoc to the 76ers. Chicago admits the first-round draft pick that accompanied Starks from Golden State was the key to the trade, yet the Bulls desperately need the kind of leadership that Starks used to offer. "He should be a leader and honor his job until he's moved," says Chicago guard Randy Brown. "I wish he'd reconsider and come out and help us."