(Updated at 2:05 p.m. with news that Joe Johnson will miss the next two games.)
Six-time All-Star Joe Johnson hasn’t often been given a warm embrace by the sports fans of Atlanta. That’s because no matter how many times he is referenced by team officials as “the six-time All-Star Joe Johnson,” significant matters keep getting in the way. Like his contract, his aloofness, his seeming lack of leadership and his team’s general shortcomings.
Well, here’s one way “six-time All-Star Joe Johnson” can score some points with the general populace: don’t play in his sixth All-Star game.
The Hawks are on a slide. They lost more games in the past 10 (3-7) than they did in the first 22 (16-6). This isn’t completely unexpected. They’re banged up. They’re worn down. They’re starting to play some better teams. They’re missing their starting center (Al Horford) and his backup (Jason Collins), and this was an undersized team to begin with. It figured at some point that a 16-6 team would have a market correction.
Johnson has tendinitis in his left knee. He came out of Monday’s game in Chicago and never went back in.
Some folks enthusiastically are taking verbal 2-by-4’s to Johnson for not playing through the injury. I’m not going down that road. It’s much safer to question an athlete’s ability, character and leadership than it is to wonder whether he is really injured.
But this we know for certain: Johnson says he wasn’t healthy enough to finish the game in Chicago. He returned to Atlanta for an MRI and will not play in the next two games before the All-Star break (Wednesday in New York; Thursday at home against Orlando). That will be followed by the five-day break before the season resumes Feb. 29 against Golden State.
The Hawks come out of the break playing three games in four days at home, then go on a six-game, nine-day road trip straight out of Travelocity Hell. It carries them from Indiana down to Miami, back up to Detroit, way over to Sacramento, back to Denver, back down to Los Angeles, then home. (Thank you, David Stern. You can put down the pipe now.) This is a team that has fallen to sixth overall in the Eastern Conference and suddenly is scrambling just to make the playoffs. The second half: kind of important.
I realize the NBA is the only league where the All-Star game is still somewhat of an event. It’s Entertainment Tonight in high-tops. Stern looks at the weekend like a wedding planner looks at a perfect three-tiered cake and prime rib buffet. He kvells. The weekend is an ego rush for the players. Shoe companies want their millionaire pitchmen on site for marketing purposes.
Johnson needs to be thinking about his team here. And yes, as much as the man is criticized, as great as Josh Smith has been, as important as Horford is when he’s healthy, it’s still Johnson’s team. The Hawks will go only as far as he takes them. He needs to play, he needs to score, even if his personality doesn’t scream, “Jump on my back, guys.” He doesn’t need the NBA’s three carnival events in Orlando — the All-Star game, the three-point contest and the “Shooting Stars” competition.
Resting the knee for the second half accomplishes three things: 1) It gives the Hawks the best chance for success, even if the absence of Horford suggests there’s probably a ceiling; 2) It sends the right message to the team and fans; 3) It opens the door for him to be replaced on the Eastern Conference roster by the guy who should really be there: Smith. (All-Star replacements are decided by the commissioner. But Smith’s exclusion from the game sparked criticism, even from the TNT crew, and logic suggests Smith would have a good chance to make it.)
Not going to Orlando might be a shot to Johnson’s ego, but he needs to decide what’s more important. The answer should be obvious.
By Jeff Schultz