For probably just the second time in his NBA career, Joe Johnson finds himself at a crossroads. He has one year left on his current contract. His team is looking to make the jump from playoff-maker to contender. He is still looking for the respect due a person of his talents. Where does he go from here? Well, “where he goes” is not so much about next summer as it is about the season that starts in 15 days.
Now I know what you might be thinking. This is all just going to be more noise about Joe not signing the contract extension offered by the Hawks. I assure you it’s not. If you ask me, that is only part of why he is at a crossroads, and it is not even the driving reason behind it all. Without exacerbating the point, we’ve seen all of this before with other teams and players. No, this is about something else. Something I like to call re-evolution. It’s sort of like “coming full circle.” Players get into the league and if all goes well, they evolve to the point of where they become the best they are going to be. Sometimes they then evolve further into something else, play a different role, man a different position. Usually it’s because it’s necessary. Because that’s the best that can be done. But if things work out right, they get to “re-evolve” into that player they were, when they were at their most efficient, effective, and comfortable. Perhaps Joe is about to reach that point. And Perhaps that is exactly where the Hawks need him to be.
If you ask people when Joe Johnson had his best season, many will undoubtedly say the 2006-2007 season. You know, the one in which he averaged 25 points, 4.2 rebounds, 4.4 assists, and shot 47% overall from the field, and 38% from 3-point land. Hard to argue that point, as those are not just all-star numbers, those are the kinds of numbers very few in the NBA can put up, including some guys who are considered more exciting or more potent players. No doubt about it, that was the one true bright spot in a season that saw the Hawks limp their way to 30 wins.
But I’m not entirely convinced that was his best year. Recall the year before he came here, and you will see what I mean. Rewind your mind to 2005. The Phoenix Suns had just finished the regular season with a franchise-best 62 wins. They embarked on a journey through the playoffs that saw them destroy their first two opponents, only to get dropped 4 games to 1 by the implaccable San Antonio Spurs in the Western Finals. You go back and read the articles from ESPN and many others. All of them talk about how the Suns might have or would have knocked off the Spurs…if only Joe had not missed the first two games of that series. Fast forward to that summer, when Joe told the Phoenix front office that he didn’t want to be in Phoenix anymore. He wanted to go to Atlanta, and he wasn’t taking “no” for an answer. You read the articles that talk about how the Suns just won’t be the same without this incredibly talented 24 year old shooting guard from Arkansas. You look at the stats, and you see why, but not at first. 17 points per game. Okay, how does that compare to 25, you say? 5.1 rebounds, 3.5 assists….and only 1.8 turnovers per game. Okay, you say. That sounds like typical Joe, but fewer turnovers than we’re used to seeing. Even the 39.5 minutes per game sounds like typical Joe. So what, you say.
Then you begin to see it. The 48% from beyond the arc, with 46% from the field overall. And the playoff games that season? Guys’ averages usually go down a bit. Only the real warriors raise their games. Joe went into the postseason that year and shot a mind-numbing 56% from 3-point range, and 50% overall, while raising his scoring to nearly 19 points per game. On top of that, he maintained an average of 4.3 rebounds, 3.3 assists, and lowered his already anemic turnovers to 1.1 a game.
There it is. Everything the pundits and the experts talked about. Here was a guy doing this on a team where he wasn’t the primary ball-handler. Wasn’t the top scorer. Wasn’t the first or even second option on offense. THIS was what got him an offer of $70 million. THIS was what made Atlanta hand over the car keys, the living room suite, and the kitchen sink without blinking, when Phoenix demanded it. THIS was “the one.” THIS was a good reason to “go for broke.” And now here the Hawks are, having climbed out of the NBA basement. Here the Hawks are, demanding respect and getting it from opposing teams. Here the Hawks are, looking to name themselves not just winners, but contenders. And here Joe is, aspiring to join the ranks of the elite.
But is that what Joe needs now? Is that what the Hawks need now? Will his becoming an “elite” player (whatever that is supposed to mean, exactly) help take the Hawks to the next level? Joe’s departure from Phoenix was a revolution. One for him, and certainly one for the Hawks. Will this season, and the following summer be another revolution? Perhaps the time of revolution is past, and the time of re-evolution is at hand. Many pundits have maintained that the Hawks lack identity and leadership. That has needed to change, and it IS changing. The Hawks are forming an identity. Some would contend that after a 47 win season and a successful first round playoff series, they have already formed their identity. I don’t think so. Not yet is the transformation complete. They Hawks are still finding out who and what they are. Young players are still climbing towards their ceilings, finding and filling their roles, and solidifying their places in the League. The evolution is still in process.
So much of this hangs on Joe, and yet….so much of it does not. Should not. Guys like Marvin Williams, Al Horford, and Josh Smith are still coming into their own. At the age of 23, all three should be, or already are on the cusp of hitting that spot that Joe was in, before he broke out in ’04-’05. Look at his ‘03-’04 stats, and you will see what I mean about hitting that stride, as it were. Strange, isn’t it? He has to be looking at them right now (Marvin, Al, Josh) with a strong sense of Deja Vu.
Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying Joe should go back to being a third option on offense. He’s still the best scorer we have right now. Nor am I suggesting that he lower his scoring average by 8 points. But wouldn’t it be better to throw off that oh-so-heavy cape? Wouldn’t it be nice to go back to being a pivotal guy on a talented, cohesive team, rather than a “savior” on a floundering ship? Wouldn’t it be great to go back to being Joe? A guy who could do anything, but didn’t have to do everything.
To be fair, Joe had a lot more help back there in Phoenix. He had an all-star point guard. He had two guys in the frontcourt who were as talented as any in the league, if not moreso on most occasions. When he first got to Atlanta, he didn’t have that. He became the leading scorer, and later on, the leader. He learned that the two are not synonymous (somebody should have told Ben Gordon’s agent that, and Detroit will find out soon enough). He also learned that having to do everything is not as much fun as it’s been advertised. But those times should be past now. His teammates should be ready now. Would we like to see another 25 ppg season from Joe? Of course we would. But we don’t want to see him do that because he has to for us to win, or to gain some new status in the NBA. Rather, because he can. Not because nobody else can provide the scoring, but because others’ ability and production allow him to do so more easily, and more efficiently.
The Hawks should no longer need the Joe from ‘06-’07. They need the Joe from ‘04-’05. THAT Joe isn’t tired. THAT Joe wins games on a regular basis. THAT Joe performs even better in the playoffs than he does in the regular season. THAT Joe is the leader of the revolution….by way of re-evolution.
So what do you think? Is the pursuit of elite status what will help Joe and the Hawks the most? Should he share the load he was originally tasked with? What kind of team do you see the Hawks evolving into?