Return of the Silent Star

Bo Churney —  January 16, 2013

Joe Johnson

Seven seasons. 21 points and five assists per game. Six All-Star selections and an All-NBA nod to boot.

Joe Johnson isn’t LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, or Chris Paul. You can easily argue that he was never a top ten player in the league, and point out that he only garnered two total MVP votes in his career.

But what you have to acknowledge is that Joe Johnson revitalized a franchise that had fallen into the fiery pits of NBA hell. In the six years before Johnson arrived, the Hawks only won more than 30 games twice, and were in a certain type of futility that resulted in a 13-69 record in the 2004-05 season.

And this highly-sought free agent wanted to come to this team?

Of course, Joe immediately made a great deal of impact on the court. Being the primary ball handler and number one option on a team for the first time, Joe led a team whose next best player was Al Harrington to 26 wins. (doubling the total from the previous year) After missing the playoffs for several seasons, Joe brought a sense that the future might actually have something to hold.

The next year, JJ was absolutely fantastic, averaging 25 points on 47% shooting, along with four rebounds and four assists. His season was cut to 57 games due to injury, however; but in those games he played like superstar and earned the first of his six All-Star selections in Atlanta.

The 07-08 season finally saw the Hawks return to the playoffs for the first time in almost a decade, and it wasn’t just because of Joe putting up 22 points and six assists without anyone really noticing; it was because the team was specifically built around Johnson, with Josh Smith, Al Horford, Marvin Williams, and Mike Bibby all possessing certain talents that complemented JJ’s isolation heavy game.

The Hawks may have lost in the first round that year to the Celtics, but the pure energy in the fan base is why the Hawks were about to win three games in that series, and stretch it out to a game seven. A team that was once struggling to get 10,000 people to show up for games was finally packing the house with loud and raucous fans. None of that happens without Joe Johnson.

The Hawks continued to progress and grow as a team with Johnson playing the starring role. After the seven-game series with Boston, the Hawks climbed to the four-seed in the East, posting a 47-35 record. This time, they won a playoff-series, bouncing Dwyane Wade and the Miami Heat from the first round. They were, however, then swept from the postseason by the Cavaliers, or to be more accurate, by LeBron James being absolutely ridiculous.

But there was still potential. In the 2009-10 season, it looked like the Hawks could legitimately contend for a spot in it’s first ECF. They won 53 games, which was the most for the franchise is 13 years. Joe was playing great, and Josh Smith and Al Horford were both playing at All-Star levels. Jamal Crawford had joined the team and was 6th man of the Year. Some people thought it might be the time the Hawks broke out of the 2nd round of the playoffs…

Then the bottom fell out.

After struggling with a Milwaukee Bucks team missing Andrew Bogut, Joe and crew were swept from the playoffs for a second straight year. (courtesy of the Orlando Magic) Only this time, the collapse could clearly be attributed to the play of Mr. Johnson, and his partner in chucking-crime, Jamal Crawford. While Horford and S,otjplayed relatively well, sporting 20+ PERs for those 11 games, Joe and Jamal were just absolutely awful. Though the 17/5/5 line might not look too terrible at first, you cringe when you realize that this is supposed to be the number one option and that he put up those stats while shooting 38%. (of course, some of the blame is mitigated when you see that Jamal had an even higher usage rate while sporting an even lower shooting percentage)

Finally, a rift had developed between the fans; Joe’s contract was up and he was a free agent. Should the team re-sign him and hope that this “Core” can continue to improve under the direction of a new coach, or should management let him walk, allowing for the team to be rebuilt around the younger stars of Horford and Smith. Could the team really afford to give a second-tier star a max contract and that think that this team would still have that bright future that Johnson brought years earlier?

Apparently, the Atlanta Spirit Group thought that the answer was yes, and proceeded to give JJ one of the richest contracts in NBA history. The ire from fans around the NBA grew, as the once underrated star essentially become the most overrated in a matter of minutes. Joe didn’t strengthen his case against that, seemingly taking a “huge step backwards” in production in the 2010-11 regular season. While his numbers weren’t too different from his career stats, practically every Atlanta fan was expecting more from the guy coming off the $120 million payday. His PER was at it’s lowest mark in years and it appeared that it would only get worse.

The next season though, Joe looked like he had regained some of his form. His efficiency was up, he was hitting clutch baskets almost at will, and was really cementing himself as one of the league’s elite wing defenders. He was named to his sixth all-star team, but had suddenly become very underrated again in the eyes of the league. With the Hawks again facing the Celtics again in the first round of the playoffs, and with the Bulls losing Derrick Rose to an ACL injury in their first playoff game of the season, it seemed that Joe might finally have a shot at leading the Hawks into uncharted territory: the conference finals.

It didn’t happen. Joe played worse than he probably ever had in a Hawks uniform in the playoff series against Boston. He looked passive, uninterested, and just plain awful, for lack of a better phrase. With Josh and Al playing more aggressively with rather obvious injuries, this was the final nail in the coffin for Joe. The fans didn’t want him, it looked like his teammates didn’t want him, and management was scrambling to find ways out from under his contract. The man that was once welcomed into the city because of his willingness to play here had burned more bridges than Sherman, and the news of his departure to the Brooklyn Nets provoked almost 100% cheering from fans and non-fans alike.

And now, Joe will get his chance to remind the Atlanta faithful of the caliber of player that he is. After an awful start to the season, Joe has turned things around, averaging 20 points per game on 48% shooting in 2013. Over that period, the Nets haven’t lost a game, while the Hawks have been on skids, losing six of seven.

When PA-guy Ryan Cameron announces Joe’s name in introductions, I’m not going to boo or completely ignore it. I will give Joe a nice little applause, which is something that I hope the rest of Philips Arena will do. He deserves it, and probably something more in the future…


Bo Churney

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