Some who cover the NBA are aghast that the Hawks have paid $119 million to keep Joe Johnson. Kelly Dwyer of Yahoo! Sports and the blog Ball Don’t Lie calls it: “Worst contract, ever.” John Hollinger of ESPN.com’s Insider (link requires registration) writes: “The Hawks might have won the battle here, but as a result they’ll almost certainly lose the war.”
The crux of these reasoned arguments: Johnson isn’t worth that much money now, and he absolutely won’t be worth it five years hence. I’d offer no rebuttal on either point, but I will offer a rebuttal. (I know that sounds weird. Hear me out.)
The Hawks have arrived at a precarious point. They’ve gotten good but not good enough. They were so bad against Orlando — historically bad, you’ll recall — that it cost Mike Woodson his job and threatened to override every painful gain made these past six seasons. The local audience, which never quite bought into the notion of the Hawks as legitimate, is again poised to tune them out.
Many Hawks fans aren’t crazy about Johnson — who, as we heard after Game 3 of Round 2, isn’t crazy about Hawks fans — but I submit that those same folks would have seized the loss of J-J-J-Joe as reason to wash their hands of this operation. Because there was no way the Hawks could have let Johnson leave and been as good next season.
They could have tinkered till the cows came home, but they couldn’t have offset the loss of sheer talent: Not with a sign-and-trade for Johnson, not with anyone signed to the mid-level exception as a free agent, not with the drafting of Jordan Crawford. They’d have gotten worse, and we saw earlier this century how we as Atlantans respond to a Hawks’ team that gets worse.
We stop caring. We stop buying tickets. If we mention the Hawks at all, it’s as an object of derision. And this team has come too far to retreat into rebuilding mode again so soon.
To state the obvious: Johnson isn’t Kobe Bryant or LeBron James or Dwyane Wade. He’s not a strap-the-team-on-his-back superstar. He is, however, a very good player who could be even more effective if he stopped trying to play like a superstar. This is what Larry Drew, the Hawks’ new coach, wants: For Johnson to be first among equals, not the leader of the pack.
Contrary to popular belief, the Hawks are not complete idiots. They know they’ve overpaid Johnson, but overpaying was the only way to keep him. And the consequences of not keeping him more than offset, at least in the short run, the outlay.
Had Johnson left, we’d have said: “See there? The Hawks’ best player no longer wanted any part of them.” And surely every other big-ticket free agent this summer and in coming summers would have noted that Johnson wasn’t willing to stick around even after his team won 53 games. That’s almost an indelible mark: If the chief Hawk didn’t think Atlanta could ever win any bigger, why should anybody else?
Yes, this contract will become an albatross soon. Johnson will not be worth $20 million in Year 4, or Year 5, or Year 6. But overpaying now was the price for being seen as a team willing to compete, and such is the nature of the Atlanta Spirit that these owners might not be the ones paying Johnson in 2013-2014.
By keeping Joe Johnson, the Hawks have left open their window of opportunity. They have four very good players under contract for next season — Johnson, Josh Smith, Al Horford and Jamal Crawford — and with that nucleus they still have a chance. They’ll need Jeff Teague to develop and they’ll need to deepen their bench, but they have a chance.
They entered free agency with two choices: Overpay J.J. and remain a factor in the NBA East, or save the money and sink back to irrelevance. They chose to remain relevant, and good for them.
One thing more: This might well be a bad contract, but it’s not the worst in NBA history. It’s not even the worst in Hawks’ history. Alan Henderson’s was worse. Speedy Claxton’s was worse. Jon Koncak’s was worse.