Joe Johnson: He wasn’t a superstar, but he made a difference

Aug. 19, 2005: The Hawks celebrate their victory over Steve Belkin. (AJC file photo)

Aug. 19, 2005: The Hawks celebrate their rousing victory over Steve Belkin. (AJC file photo)

For the first five years, the Hawks got what they paid for. Over those five seasons, Joe Johnson was their leading scorer and their best player. If not for him, this team’s 0-for-the-21st-century playoff drought might have continued to this day. That said …

If not for Joe Johnson, the Hawks’ owners wouldn’t have been suing one another. In the summer of 2005 Steve Belkin balked at the price of a sign-and-trade — general manager Billy Knight wanted to ship Boris Diaw and two No. 1 draft picks to Phoenix; Belkin believed one pick should suffice — and the whole thing wound up in a Boston courtroom, where Knight famously declined to shake Belkin’s hand, and the veil of contentment among ownership was put asunder.

No, that wasn’t Johnson’s fault. He had no control over these owners, and he delivered on the promise Knight had seen in him. From being the Suns’ fourth-best player, Johnson developed into “the best Hawk since Dominique Wilkins.” That was the description offered by Michael Gearon Jr., another of the owners, and it was and remains the gospel truth.

There were nights, many of them, over those first few seasons when Johnson was the only reason to watch the Hawks, and as the team began to improve he remained the best reason. He scored 35 points, 20 in a frenzied fourth quarter, against the Celtics in Game 4 of the 2008 playoff series, and that performance is among the finest by any Atlanta Hawk ever. Afterward Boston’s Sam Cassell said of Johnson: “He’s their franchise ballplayer.”

But Johnson was a strange sort of franchise player, not least because the Hawks — stop the presses — are a strange franchise. His arrival was overshadowed by the management kerfuffle. His best years here were the ones when nobody was watching because the team was losing. Even that Game 4 against Boston is more widely recalled as the night Zaza Pachulia went forehead-to-forehead with Kevin Garnett.

About that Game 4 windfall: It would take Johnson 31 games over more than three calendar years to break 30 in the postseason again. That became the biggest knock: Come the playoffs, the franchise ballplayer wasn’t often a franchise ballplayer. Johnson averaged 20.8 points over his seven regular seasons as a Hawk; over 47 playoff games, he averaged 18 points.

It was after one of his worst showings — eight points on 15 shots in a 30-point Game 3 blowout by Orlando here in 2010 — that Johnson said he didn’t care if fans showed up. That summer he became a free agent, and the Hawks, who’d just promoted Larry Drew to head coach in large measure because Drew promised to back away from Mike Woodson’s Iso-Joes, spent $120 million over six seasons to keep Johnson from leaving.

In sum, they lavished superstar’s wages — Johnson was making more than LeBron James, who also was a free agent that summer — on a player who had demonstrated he wasn’t quite a superstar, and now that player was closing in on 30 and his team didn’t want him to play in the same way that had made him an All-Star, and he’d just angered the paying customers to boot. With the new contract, the Hawks were no longer getting what they paid for. Within two years, Johnson wasn’t even their second-best player.

For all the good work he did here, Johnson was never the people’s choice. He’s not a smiler, and the bulk of his public comments tended to the negative. (Even after victories, Johnson could be heard to say his team needed to do something better.) He was never an unwilling passer — he and Mike Bibby worked beautifully together — but the Iso-Joes could leave that impression.

When the Hawks reached an agreement to trade Johnson to the Nets, local reaction was euphoric. No more albatross contract! No more sour Joe faces! Lost in the latest bit of giddiness was the memory of a similar giddy day in the summer of 2005, when the other Hawks owners had deposed Belkin as their NBA governor, and the sign-and-trade for Johnson had finally gone through and a celebration was staged on the floor of Philips Arena.

A free agent of substance had committed himself to a team coming off a 13-69 season, and for a downtrodden franchise that marked a new beginning. Seven years later, nobody was sorry to see him leave, but if not for Joe Johnson, this city might never have realized the Hawks were still in business.

By Mark Bradley

182 comments Add your comment

Herschel Talker

July 6th, 2012
11:45 am

MB:

What’s shaking?

HT

Flipman

July 6th, 2012
11:45 am

First…to say farewell Joe. You were good player but not a superstar which is what we were paying you to be.

Joe Johnson

July 6th, 2012
11:45 am

You fools going to be sorry I is the greatest since Spud Webb

Smokey

July 6th, 2012
11:49 am

Glad hes gone but agree…

Khao$

July 6th, 2012
11:49 am

Great way to sum up the strange dichatomy that is Joe Johnson…

atkII

July 6th, 2012
11:50 am

Joe Johnson drew a lot of ire, but for this formerly disenchanted fan, he brought me back to Philips. Thank you, Joe.

Preston

July 6th, 2012
11:53 am

Good article. Too bad that his legacy is what it is, because I think he showed up, played hard (and great D), and more often than not played really well.

Mr. Brooks

July 6th, 2012
11:54 am

don’t worry people! the falcons are on the rise. matt ryan is lifting weights and julio jones got a haircut to make him faster. the falcons are on the rise!

Sammy Hagar

July 6th, 2012
11:59 am

Joe should have never been resigned. No other team was offering him 75%what the Hawks gave him. Bad ownership decision.

[...] Reflecting on the seven seasons Joe Johnson spent with the Atlanta Hawks. Oddities abounded. …Source Tags: joe [...]

Sage of Bluesland

July 6th, 2012
12:03 pm

So long, Droopy. Thank God they didn’t trade Horford.

PMC

July 6th, 2012
12:04 pm

Given the way Billy Knight spent draft picks he should have sent them 5.

Leon Justice

July 6th, 2012
12:05 pm

I feel Joe is an All Star. The only reason he didn’t score more was because of bad coaching. The Offensive System was aweful or hardly ever executed. Josh being hard headed or not playing hard. There are alot of factors that go into what happen with the Hawks. Watch what happens in Brooklyn. He will be an All Star again with better numbers and they will beat the Hawks in the playoffs this year in the first round. you heard it hear first.

DP

July 6th, 2012
12:06 pm

All that history about Joe Johnson and Mark Bradley can’t bring himself to acknowledge that he was an advocate of the Hawks signing Johnson to the 6 year extension that would have wrecked the franchise for the next several years had Danny Ferry not come along and found a buyer dumb enough to take him.

Don Mills

July 6th, 2012
12:07 pm

The irony of the trade is now Joe will be paired with the point guard that we could have had (Deron Williams) and we will get a chance to see what could have been. I bet Joe will be a better player because of it.

Lon Stotts

July 6th, 2012
12:07 pm

Joe was a great player on the court, and I don’t doubt his love of the game, work ethic, nor his will to win. However, when you’re making the kind of money he was making, there’s an implied leadership position that comes with it. Joe was never the kind of guy to step up and say something during tough times, and the ASG should’ve recognized this before tendering him such an obscene offer. Still, you can’t fault Joe for simply taking a pay raise and maintaining his frustratingly detached personality. That one’s on ownership. The guy can ball, but he’s never been a leader.

JayInAtlanta

July 6th, 2012
12:08 pm

This was a pretty well-balanced goodbye letter, until….

“Within two years, Johnson wasn’t even their second-best player.”

Wait, what now?

Lifelong Hawks supporter here. Now we just have to get used to not being in the playoffs…maybe for another decade. The “fans” got what they wish. Hypothetical hope in the next five years about big-names and championship contending = the odds of a lightning strike.

Pro basketball lovers who support the home team are in for a lot of pain. Sorry, I would have rather been a first-or-second round playoff dynasty any day.

Wink

July 6th, 2012
12:08 pm

I don’t blame Joe for signing the contract. Problem was he did not perform or demonstrate leadership. As for his All Star appearances, Joe did not have any memorable moments in those exhibition games of showmanship. He was just ordinary and the highest paid Hawk. Too bad we could not get Marshon Brooks from the Nets. This kid destroyed Joe in head to head competition.

Joe will not make the Nets better. His personality is not made for New York. The spotlight is going to be too much for him. If he could not take the Atlanta fans, the New York fans tolerance is even worst. Really glad to get that contract out of here and Belkin was right all along.

We can still make the playoffs as an 7th or 8th seed, really we have had top seeding and it did not make a difference. Joe makes a difference now that he’s gone, we have room for growth and a GM with some serious pedigree to make change!

PMC

July 6th, 2012
12:09 pm

Sad that the salad days of a franchise would be…..yay the 2nd round.

Oh Atlanta has no passion for thier pro sports teams…. why would we have any passion for them?

Sam

July 6th, 2012
12:12 pm

Very good article.

Loving all this Hawks love on ajc.com.

mike

July 6th, 2012
12:12 pm

Big fan of Joe, hope he does well in NJ. If he was not around the past 7 years we would be nowhere. I’m not a big believer that every athlete has to be charming, smile a lot, etc. Just get wins.

1988

July 6th, 2012
12:12 pm

Good article, Mark. I was estatic when the Hawks traded Joe to Brooklyn, but not because I dislike Joe Johnson. Just because, as you said, he was probably the third best player on the team and was eating up a ton of cap space. I wish him well in Brooklyn, although I fail to see how the Nets are going to build a championship-caliber team now that they have taken on his massive contract.

What do you think is next for the Hawks? I am fine with regressing for a year and making a run at Dwight Howard and/or Chris Paul, but I worry that if the Hawks are pinning the hopes of their franchise on the possibility that those two guys will pick Atlanta over a lot of other (at least as attrative) suitors, it will be the New York Knicks all over again. I hate to part with Al Horford, but do you think an Al Horford and Jeff Teauge for Dwight Howard sign and trade could be a real possibility?

Shug

July 6th, 2012
12:14 pm

I’d put Joe J. somewhere behind Dominique, Pistol Pete, Sweet Lou Hudson, Dan Roundfield, and a few others in the Hawks pantheon.

mookie

July 6th, 2012
12:14 pm

Joe was an offensive ‘black hole’, the ball would go into him and it never made it’s way out. The hawks would be on a run with offensive ball movement and he would come down the court and isolate and jack up a 25 footer with a double team and a man open in the paint. He just didn’t seem to have smart basketball instincts. His best years were in Phoenix when he was directed by a true point. He should never have been re-signed after his first contract. Enjoy Brooklyn.

Falkor

July 6th, 2012
12:14 pm

Well said MB

1988

July 6th, 2012
12:18 pm

Also, was 2005 really that long ago? Why is everyone’s suit in the photo three sizes too big? Mike Woodson looks like Suge Knight in that picture.

Veteran Fan

July 6th, 2012
12:22 pm

How many times in a crucial situation in a game has Joe declined to take it to the basket and settled for a fallaway jumper from long range? He never played above the rim and he declined to take leadership on a team that desparately needed it! He is like other overpaid millionaires in this league, he got his money so he would show up and play, but he decided how much effort went into that. Maybe his leaving will convince Josh that he needs to step up and lead a little and quit worrying about stats and his pride! Its about winning guys and then everything else will follow! Lebron finally figured it out, can the Hawks?

Dan Struggla

July 6th, 2012
12:22 pm

I’ve been a fan since 69, and I honestly cannot remember being so estatic! Joe was a good player, but they will be better without him. He dominated the ball, wasting WAY TOO much time dribbling, and insisted on taking clutch shots despite being double and triple teamed. Teague was afraid not to give him the ball down the stretch, and if Joe passed- it was to Josh for a 3! He clogged the offense up, and is past his prime. Let’s keep Horoford, Teague, Smith, and Jenkins, and go after Paul next year. We don’t want Dwight. Despite his talent, He’s becomming a self centered baby.

Marcus

July 6th, 2012
12:24 pm

The remaining value of the contract and the pending [age-based] diminishing returns from ending his career as a Hawk. It would have been nice to see a more formal transition from JJ to Al/Smoove/Teague as the teams best player(s). JJ seemed to indirectly acknowledge as much earlier this season or last during a particular exhausting game (forget opponent) when he was quoted as telling Josh Smith that he is young and he could handle playing the full 48.
I am just not 100% sure he embraced his journey to a reduced role because he continued to do many of the things required of him when the team was young and playoff-challenged. After a while, his role and expectations should have changed as the team changed, but it seemed like everyone (coaches and players) was still caught up in the 2005-2009 paradigm of “Joe does everything” vs. asserting themselves and really complimenting each other.

JJ and the Hawks were brought back to relevancy during his time and we should be forever grateful, but the balance due and inability to adjust (on everyones part) brought us to this point.

Good luck JJ except when the Hawks are on the other sideline.

Jaded Hawks Fan

July 6th, 2012
12:26 pm

I think a lot of the hatred toward Joe was misdirected anger. He was very good NBA player. He wasn’t a great NBA player and wasn’t worth what he was paid. The frustration should have been at the people who so grossly overpaid him.

I’d take Joe as my third option any of the day of the week. Heck, he was awesome in that role with Phoenix.

BobWeiss

July 6th, 2012
12:28 pm

I know I’m in the minority, but I think trading Joe Johnson was a mistake. It reminds me when the Hawks blew up a pretty decent team back in the 90’s (Blaylock, Smith, Augmon, Laettner, etc.) The team was probably never going to make the NBA Finals, but it was far more entertaining watching a 50 win team compete in the regular season and maybe win a playoff series as opposed to the eight years of misery that followed. It took a lot of work to get this team back to respectability. I hate to blow it up again just because a few players might be overpaid. I hope Danny Ferry is the brilliant GM everyone is saying. I wonder if the same moves would have been made if Horford would have been healthy this year and the Hawks would have won a playoff series or two?

Dan Struggla

July 6th, 2012
12:28 pm

Joe was a good player, and certainly helped the Hawks become a pretty good team. His Iso-Joes killed the offense, and his insistence on taking every big shot (regardless if he were open or double or triple teamed) really hurt the team. Teague was afraid not to give him the ball down the stretch. Maybe Josh will stay, and we can get Chris Paul next year. I’ll pass on Dwight- he has become a self centered baby. Wonder how Deron will like it down the stretch when Joe insists on dribbling in a stationary position for 15 seconds before throwing up a prayer!

Jimmy Crack

July 6th, 2012
12:29 pm

What is evident is that NBA defenses had figured out the Hawks simply by double teaming Joe, leaving 3 defenders on 4 Hawks all the time. Now what? Somebody else better start filling up that basket next season (and I’m not talking about Josh’s rainbows). Our guards need to account for at least 25 points per game between them, so the SG spot has to be highly productive out of the gate. Let’s hope John Jenkins’ jumpshot is juicy.

Bmarko

July 6th, 2012
12:33 pm

The only thing Joe Johnson was good at was playing 1 vs 5 and dribbling the ball for 20 sec before launching a 20 ft fadeaway as the shot clock expired. Nuff Said

Dawg Haus

July 6th, 2012
12:33 pm

Very good article, Mark. He was a good player but the Hawks were holding themselves hostage with that contract.

CazLand

July 6th, 2012
12:34 pm

JJ was our best player but far from an ALLSTAR imo. He came to play every night,just did’nt have any consistant help. I wish him the best & thank him for his services.

md

July 6th, 2012
12:35 pm

“Making a difference” isn’t enough when one is paid superstar money………he should of been paid “making a difference” money. His absurd contract hamstrung the organization and Ferry had no choice….

Mark Bradley

July 6th, 2012
12:37 pm

As for me never admitting I supported the re-signing … seems to me I conceded that very thing just the other day.

http://blogs.ajc.com/mark-bradley-blog/2012/07/02/for-gm-ferry-trying-to-trade-johnson-is-the-right-first-move/

I like to think I’m pretty good about owning up to mistakes. That’s what the annual Accountability Scoreboard is for.

Raybud

July 6th, 2012
12:38 pm

@ Marcus…Well said bro. I think the best i’d ever seen Joe was in that Boston series when the first made it to the playoffs in over 10yrs. Game 4, i thought at the time, helped define him and i felt “assured” that we would be the team to come out of the east within the next few years. After the Orlando Series two years ago, he made the comment the he didn’t care “if the fans showed up or not”. I think he made his own way out of the door with that one. We all wanted more from him, but he show us that he is really an 17-18 pt a night player. The future of our team hinges on the front court of Smith and Horford. Smith showed us that we were ok even when our top two players are out for multiple games. All Smith needs is a “coach”, not an assistant. He needs someone that tells him the truth about himself. He and Horford, I believe, are 20-10 players. We will definitely find out this year what type of team the Hawks really are.

Gapeach

July 6th, 2012
12:39 pm

I for one am going to miss Joe. He did a lot of good things 4 the team contract aside he is very a good player. Because he had a quiet demeanor doesnt take away from the fact of his play. I hope he does well in BK. I will be cheering 4 just not against the hawks but when he comes back i will cheer 4 him. Thanks Joe I appreciate what u did reguardless if the city of Atlanta didnt. And 4I those of u sayi g falcons this and that chile plz still waiting on them to “RISE UP’

CazLand

July 6th, 2012
12:40 pm

JJ was our best player but far from an ALLSTAR imo. He came to play every night,but just did’nt have the consistant help we needed to get over the being middle of the road NBA team. I thank him for his services & wish him the best.

Just up the Street

July 6th, 2012
12:45 pm

I see 4 losers in that picture.

Justahawkfan

July 6th, 2012
12:48 pm

Lets hope we find someone =\> joe Johnson. If we don’t it’s hello loneliness, goodbye goodbye happiness, hello loneliness I think I’m gonna die.

Miriam Webster

July 6th, 2012
12:52 pm

Mark – did a double take on the “kerfuffle” comment. Nice one. Been watching Wimbledon coverage the past couple weeks?

Clydesdale

July 6th, 2012
12:55 pm

Joe did all he could do. Joe is a 6′7” guy who has great coordination but lacks explosion. He can’t leap 45 inches off the ground and can’t run a 4.4 40 yard dash. Joe could post up short guards. Joe could penetrate by being a very good dribbler for his height but once he got to 12-15 feet he had to pull up. He made many of these pull-ups. Joe played tough defense against other players who often had the hops and speed he lacked. That tells you a lot. Rich guys who play D care about winning. He did all he could do. To be a superstar you need hops, speed, coordination so you can shoot outside, dribble inside and finish at the rim. Joe could only do the first 2. Not his fault. He maximized what he had.

Mike L

July 6th, 2012
12:56 pm

The only problem with Joe was his big contract. Joe is just not as athletic the modern NBA superstar. I admire Joe because he was good at all the things that require a lot of work growing up and during the offseason. The dude put in his time to be good, He was just misplaced a bit. Still the second best player in Atlanta Hawks history if you ask me.

cdog

July 6th, 2012
12:57 pm

with danny ferry, the hawks are headed in the championship direction. no more excuses about the asg.it was rick sund who was the asg who was holding the hawks back. three road blocks gone, marvin williams, joe johnson and sund. now, wif they can eliminate larry drew and bring in dwight howard, you will see a championship unfold.

nola ATL fan

July 6th, 2012
12:59 pm

Mark – I am REALLY glad you wrote this. Joe deserves as much … he brought the Hawks at least back into the conversation in the NBA

Just up the Street

July 6th, 2012
1:03 pm

You don’t get paid more than LaBron and not get results.

bigcalidawg

July 6th, 2012
1:08 pm

JJ got us into the playoffs and over .500, but the last 2 seasons, he was downright indifferent.

Paying that kind of money, a player has to figure out a way to have an impact on a game. Half the time, he just mailed it in.

We are extremely fortunate that a fool and his money were quickly parted.