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