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Stephen Jackson Eyes Free Agency
AS the Hawks were putting the finishing touches on another lottery busting performance, their 8th in 17 games, a 129-107 thrashing of the New Jersey Nets, Stephen Jackson was finishing another of his 20+ point performances, something that’s become sort of average over the final 41 games of this season.
Jackson has averaged over 22 points per game for the Hawks over that span, and has been one of the main catalysts of the teams fresh, exciting, and recently, winning brand of basketball. Jackson has also quietly moved into the Top 6 in steals on the year, an indicator of his effort on both ends of the floor.
But what happens to the free agent to be this offseason, after a year which saw career highs in almost every category for the 26 year old forward?
Last season, after completing a championship year with the San Antonio Spurs, Jackson sought a long term deal, and found only one, a 3 year, 10 million dollar offer from the Spurs soon after the season was over. Jackson balked, wanting to look around the league, but the Spurs soon took the offer off the table and Jackson was left to twist in the free agency wind until the Hawks signed him to his 1 year, 1 million dollar deal as the season approached.
“Last summer was a brutal summer,” remembers Jackson, who chose the Hawks because of his friendship with Jason Terry and for the opportunity to play. “But it all paid off. I don’t regret signing here, I don’t regret coming here, and I think it was the best thing for me.”
Jackson’s one year gamble with the Hawks (if he had gotten hurt, he had a player option on next season) has certainly paid off as he has received the national attention commensurate with his lofty second half production.
“I think I proved a lot of people wrong who said that I wasn’t going to be anything without Tim Duncan,” laughs Jackson. “They said that I couldn’t play without a key player. But I came here, my teammates and my coach had confidence in me and I knew what I could do, I just had to be in a situation where I could do it. I came here and gave it 110% and had a great year.”
What that great year has done for Jackson’s potential earnings remains to be seen, but Jackson will definitely make the most of this opportunity, likely the one and only time he will be able to sign a long term deal.
“A lot of people (in this league) haven’t been through the ups and downs that I’ve been through,” explains Jackson, who has had to play in professional leagues all over the globe before landing with the Spurs last year. “A lot of people know I went through hell and back trying to get to this point where I am now, so I’d be a fool not to take advantage of it.”
So what is Jackson looking for?
What about length of contract?
“Whatever I am able to get, really. Six (years) would be good, I’m just going to try and get some security and be able to take care of my family and friends.”
What about the per year average dollars of the deal?
“I can’t really say number-wise, but they know what’s fair and they know what I deserve and I think everyone across the league knows that, so whoever treats me the way I want to be treated and comes with the fairest deal, that’ll be fine.”
Few teams will be under the cap next season, but everyone will have the Mid Level Exception (MLE), which is expected to be around 4.5 million, to offer Jackson, meaning that an offer can start there and go up 12.5 percent for the length of the deal, which could be as long as the six years Jackson is seeking.
“4 and a half is a slap in this man’s face,” chimes in Terry, who got a 3 year, 22.5 million dollar deal this past offseason, perhaps influencing the figures in Jackson’s head. “We’re not taking 4 and a half, so don’t even start at 4 and a half.”
Says Jackson, “I kind of feel that way. I just want what I deserve and what I feel I’ve earned. God blessed me to have a real great year and God put me in this position for a reason, so I have to take advantage of it.”
But Jackson may feel the crush of teams being over the cap, leaving those select few that are under the cap to deal with. Some of those teams, like the Phoenix Suns and LA Clippers are more focused on Kobe Bryant, and may not need Jackson’s services anyway. But the others, like the Utah Jazz (over 30 million in cap space), the Denver Nuggets (15 million), and Jackson’s old team, the Spurs (12 million) could be potential long term suitors for Jackson’s services.
How long will Jackson wait to sign this year?
“As soon as possible,” quips Jackson, weary of last summer’s process. “I’m not going to take the exact first deal that I get, but I will sign early.”
Does that mean that Hawks GM Billy Knight has stepped forward already?
“Billy has come to me yet, but my agent was here tonight, so they are starting to talk tonight,” theorizes Jackson. “My main thing is to treat me like another guy who had a year like I did.”
Would Jackson be open to coming back to Atlanta?
“I would love to be back in Atlanta. This is my first option, but I’m going to weigh my options to see what’s best for me and my family,” emphasizes Jackson, who has embraced the city this season, including its vibrant nightlife.
“I want to be in a position where I feel wanted, a team where they want me and I’m able to help the team win. I think we showed signs of this team, what we can do, and I definitely showed that I can help this team win.”
“Any organization goes through it’s up and down points,” continues Jackson. “But I think we are at a point of turning it around. We’re just figuring out what we got, and what it takes. If I’ll be back next year, I’ll guarantee we’ll make the playoffs.”
So, after the last game of the season, in Boston on Wednesday, the waiting begins. Billy Knight is a notorious negotiator, and he is loathe to pay more than he has to for a player, so the prospect of a speedy conclusion before the free agency period begins in July, and the market is set for Jackson, seems unlikely, though not impossible.
As always, Jackson gets the last word:
“I want to say this again: I would love to be back in Atlanta. I’ve built a relationship with some of these guys, me and JT are friends, so if the situation is right, I will definitely be back.”
Jason Walker wishes that money grew on trees so he could pay Stephen Jackson to come back. He thanks Stephen for the time and his candor and hopes he doesn't get lost on the way to Boston. Jason can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org