Whether it’s because of his contract, too many poor playoff performances or those regrettable seconds last May when he indicated Hawks fans weren’t real high on his priority list, Joe Johnson might be the least popular star athlete in Atlanta.
But Johnson’s also the Hawks’ best hope for significant postseason success, which is why his seemingly buying into Larry Drew’s it’s-not-all-about-Joe offense is a positive sign.
I understand the doubts about the Hawks and Johnson. Management overpaid to keep him and painted the team into a corner for several years because no other team is going to be willing to absorb a $20 million-a-year contract. Further, to this point in his career, Johnson has proven to be an All-Star but not a super star — and there’s a difference.
But that doesn’t mean it can’t work, and there are some positive early signs. Drew is convinced Johnson has been worn down late in regular seasons and in the playoffs from playing too many 45-plus minute games. When Drew took over for Mike Woodson, his first decision was to change the offense, increasing ball distribution to take the focus off Johnson.
Many believed it wouldn’t work. The thinking was, Johnson’s ego would be an obstacle. That hasn’t been the case. Maybe it isn’t fair to fully judge the offense yet because Johnson is still not at 100 percent since coming back from elbow surgery (though his 36 points Monday against Sacramento showed he’s close). But any problems the Hawks have had this season have been based more on an inconsistent defensive effort than a predictable offense.
“LD has done a great job putting in an offense that keeps everybody spaced to the point where you really can’t double[-team] anybody,” Johnson said. “It’s a constant movement to where guys are getting wide open shots.
“I haven’t been playing a lot of 45, 48-minute games. That’s been great. Later on in April, May and June, I’ll be ready.”
When asked about skeptics who believed he would be resistant to a change that would reduce his role, Johnson laughed.
“It didn’t really bother me,” he said. “I come from Phoenix, and six years ago I didn’t have the ball as much. We all played off Steve Nash. This was just something I had to get back and adjust to. It wasn’t a problem for me. This is LD’s team. We all have to bow to his system.”
Drew believes Johnson became “an easy target” in Woodson’s iso-Joe offense.
“I thought he would buy in simply because it would take some of the wear and tear off of him,” he said. “When you go night in and night out playing isolation basketball and you turn your back and you’re being pounded, sooner or later it’s going to take its toll.”
Drew said that fatigue is exposed more in the playoffs when games slow down and opponents could focus on Johnson in the half court.
Apparently, it was the NBA’s worst-kept secret.
Jamal Crawford said when he played for other teams, “The scouting report on Joe would be that he’s worn down” late in the season.
As for the perception that Johnson wouldn’t share the ball, Crawford said: “Joe’s always been a willing passer. All of those years he averaged 20-plus points, he was getting five-plus assists, too. He was unfairly criticized for that.”
After the Sacramento game, Johnson said he’s “still not getting full extension” with his right arm but he’s close to full strength. He hit seven of 10 shots in the second quarter and 16 of 27 in the game.
I know. They’re impressive numbers in January but you’re waiting for April and May. It’s justified skepticism. But early signs are positive.
By Jeff Schultz