Tale of Two J.J.’s

Ace in the making Jair Jurrjens is back, while Hawks guard Joe Johnson might be gone.

The NBA free-agency doomsday clock is one day closer to zero. Teams can’t officially announce anything until July 8, but they began to actively pursue players tonight. As you might have heard, this is the greatest free agent class ever. Not just in NBA history, but in all of sports.

Joe Johnson isn’t quite at the top of that list, but he’s somewhere in the top 5-8 range of players on the open market. The consensus for weeks has been that Joe will leave, but the Hawks seem intent on persuading him to stay. As Michael Cunningham reports, the plan for ASG going into today was to offer Joe a max. deal as soon as the clock hit midnight.

The Hawks can offer a maximum length contract of 6-years and what is projected to be around $119 M toal. No other team can offer more than a 5-year deal, but a team like the Knicks,  Nets, Clippers or Bulls might be willing to match the annual salary.

Of the other teams in contention to sign Joe, New York is pushing the hardest. Team president Donnie Walsh and head coach Mike D’Antoni visited with JJ in Los Angeles at midnight, with the hopes of signing him to a 5-year deal believed to be worth around $95 million . No, that’s not as much as the Hawks can offer, thanks to the Larry Bird exemption that protects teams trying to re-sign their own players. But even though it would mean making make less money, there is a thought that the Knicks are now Johnson’s first choice.

No matter where he ends up, the courtship of Joe Johnson shows how crazy the market really is this year. Teams are throwing franchise money at someone who may only be an elite level scorer for 2 more seasons, and even at that he is on the fringes of elite status. Joe Johnson is my favorite NBA player, and even I think it is insane for a team to offer him as much as the Hawks and Knicks are reportedly prepared to. For the Hawks, it would pretty much cripple any chance of supplementing the Smith/Horford front-court down the road, such as a defensive-minded backup center the team so desperately needs. For the Knicks, the Plan-B of Joe Johnson and Amar’e Stoudemire would be the worst-case scenario. Could you imagine the disappointment in New York if 5 years of stripping assets for LeBron resulted in two second-tier superstars getting first-tier money, leading  a 44-win team to a 4th or 5th seed every season?  (Or as Bill Simmons so aptly put it: “The 2005 Phoenix Suns without Steve Nash”)

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While we prepare to say goodbye to J-J-J-Joe, let us also remember to welcome back Jair Jurrjens, who turned in a stellar performance tonight in the rubber match vs. Washington. In his return from a hamstring injury that shelved him for 2 months, Jair turned in 5 solid innings-throwing 5 innings of shut-out baseball- final line for Jair: 5 IP, 1 ER, 6 H, 6 K, 2 BB-getting his first win of the year, and keeping the Braves a game-and-a-half ahead of the Mets, who also won. With the series victory, Atlanta has won 12 out of the last 16 that they’ve played.  Needless to say, that’s a positive trend.

Even more positive, the encouraging performance by Jair tonight. From the outset, he located his fastball up in the zone with authority and confidence. He struck out a pair of Nationals in the first inning and hit 94 on the gun. In the bottom of the 4th, Jair helped his cause with an RBI single to give the Braves a 2-1 lead that they would not relinquish.

Much credit for the win should go to the bullpen, who protected the decision for JJ with four shut-out innings. After managing 6 hits off Jurrjens in the first 5 innings and change, the Nationals got just two more against the combination of Johnny Venters, Peter Moylan, Takashi Saito and Billy Wagner. Wagner closed the game in style, striking out the side for his 16th save of the year. He now has 49 strikeouts to just 12 walks in 31 IP.

Up next for the first-place Braves is a 3-game home set with the Florida Marlins starting Friday, July 2. The match-up will be Kris Medlen (5-1)  vs. stud right-hander Josh Johnson, who will be seeking his 9th win of the year.

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