Joe Johnson: A Look Back on His Turbulent Time with the Atlanta Hawks
Since Joe Johnson joined the Atlanta Hawks in the summer of 2005, he was a focal point for much of the good and bad fortune that has befallen the franchise. Whether it was fair or not, Johnson was considered the main reason for many of his team's triumphs and failures.
The following is a look at some of the major moments (both good and bad) from Joe Johnson's time as the Atlanta Hawks' marquee player.
2005: Joe Johnson Signs with the Atlanta Hawks; Controversy Immediately Ensues
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In the summer of 2005, Joe Johnson, who was coming off two very productive years with the Phoenix Suns, became a restricted free agent.
When the Atlanta Hawks made a lucrative contract offer, Johnson asked the Suns not to match it, per Marc Stein of ESPN.com. He desired to have a larger role (which he would definitely get in Atlanta) and was unhappy about his self-perceived status as a "fourth wheel" in Phoenix.
Behind the scenes in Atlanta, however, the owners were very much at odds over signing Johnson as their franchise centerpiece, according to the Associated Press via ESPN.com.
Eight of the nine-member Atlanta Spirit ownership group wanted it done, but Steve Belkin (who owned a 30 percent share of the franchise) did not. As the team's acting NBA governor, Belkin had to sign off on all trades and free-agent acquisitions, which he refused to do for Joe Johnson.
As the Associated Press detailed (via ESPN.com), this became the beginning of a very nasty legal dispute in which the other members tried to replace Belkin, who continually refused to budge. It was finally settled in 2011 with Belkin's part of the franchise being bought out by the others.
In the meantime, the Atlanta Hawks were able to sign Joe Johnson to a five-year, $70 million contract through a sign-and-trade deal involving Boris Diaw and two future first-round draft picks.
2007: Joe Johnson Becomes a Perennial NBA All-Star
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After leading the Atlanta Hawks in points (20.2 points per game) and assists (6.5 assists per game) during the 2005-2006 season, Joe Johnson followed up with an even stronger campaign in 2006-2007. He averaged 25, 4.4 assists and 4.1 rebounds per contest.
His 25 points per put him second in scoring average among NBA guards (behind Allen Iverson) and ninth overall in the NBA. Despite the Atlanta Hawks' terrible record that year, Johnson was added to the 2007 Eastern Conference All-Star team by David Stern when Jason Kidd suffered a back injury.
Johnson would go on to make the Eastern Conference All-Star team every year after that, marking his current streak of All-Star appearances at six seasons.
2008: Joe Johnson Leads the Atlanta Hawks Back to the Playoffs
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During the 2007-2008 season, Joe Johnson continued his high level of production, averaging 21.7 points, 5.8 assists and 4.5 rebounds per game. He also led the Atlanta Hawks to their first playoff appearance since the 1998-1999 season.
The Hawks, an eighth seed that year, were expected by virtually everyone to get blown out by the top-seeded (and eventual 2008 NBA Champion) Boston Celtics, per ESPN.com. Instead, NBA fans were treated to a thrilling seven-game series that electrified Atlanta in a way that hadn't been seen since Dominique Wilkins soared through the Omni Coliseum during the 1980s.
One of the highlights of the series was Joe Johnson's incredible Game 4 performance. Of the 35 points he poured in that night, 20 were scored in the fourth quarter, helping to lead the Hawks to a 97-92 victory and thus shocking the experts (along with the Boston Celtics).
The Hawks eventually lost the series in Game 7, but the future of the franchise looked brighter than it had in a very long time.
2010: Joe Johnson Fires Back at the Fans
The Hawks made massive strides during the next two seasons, but their progress hit a hard plateau both years in the second round of the playoffs.
This became painfully evident in 2010 when Atlanta was blown out by the Orlando Magic in the Eastern Conference semifinals (after struggling to get past a depleted and much weaker Milwaukee Bucks team in the first round).
As the team left the floor to a chorus of boos in Game 3, Johnson had this to say (via John Krolik of Pro Basketball Talk) about the Atlanta Hawks' fans: "'It’s about us in this locker room. We could care less if they showed up or not.'"
As you can imagine, that did not sit well with anyone. Johnson's statement was also compounded by the fact that his postseason production had significantly dropped off from his regular-season averages, leading people to justifiably wonder if he could ever lead the Hawks to an NBA Finals appearance.
Per ESPN.com, Johnson was treated to more boos in the final game of the series, which saw him score 14 points on 5-of-15 shooting. With Johnson being a part of the massive free-agent summer of 2010, many figured his attitude and poor play during the postseason assured that he would not be back in Atlanta the next season.
2010: Joe Johnson Signs One of the Worst Contracts Imaginable
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While many teams scrambled to improve themselves through free agency during the summer of 2010, the Atlanta Hawks decided that the status quo would work just fine.
According to Jeff Schultz of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Hawks' ownership (which was still in the midst of their bitter legal infighting) believed in the team's core of solid, young players and felt that they could propel the Hawks to be championship contenders.
Or they were just afraid that attendance with the notoriously fickle Atlanta fans would plummet even further if they tried to do anything drastic.
Whatever you believe, the Hawks went all in on Joe Johnson being "The Man" for the Hawks, offering him a maximum contract to say in Atlanta.
The six-year, $119 million deal made Johnson one of the highest-paid players in the NBA. It also meant that by the time he would be 35, he would be THE highest-paid player in the NBA.
This bitter pill became even harder to swallow when Johnson's agent, Arn Tellem, (who must have amazing mind-control powers and/or lots of blackmail material) wrote this asinine blog post for the Huffington Post.
After describing what an incredible player Joe Johnson is, he then claimed that his client would actively recruit other free agents to come play alongside him. To top it all off, he finished by inviting LeBron James to consider joining to the now financially capped-out Atlanta Hawks.
Per Michael Cunningham of the Atlanta Journal Constitution, when asked about his agent's statements, Johnson laughed and seemingly brushed off the suggestion that he would help recruit more players to Atlanta (since, you know, his contract made it pretty much impossible).
He also emphatically declared that he felt no additional pressure to live up to his enormous salary.
2011: Big Money, Big Drop-off in Production
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Almost as if it was on cue, Joe Johnson's numbers saw a sharp dip the next season after signing his lucrative deal. While 18.2 points and 4.7 assists per game are not bad averages by any stretch, they were well below his production from the past few years and definitely not numbers that someone would expect from one of the top-paid players in the NBA.
As the playoffs approached, Johnson was asked by Atlanta Hawks beat writer Michael Cunningham if he felt any added pressure to lead the team through the playoffs. His response was less than inspiring:
“Not at all [...]. In this case, it is not like that. We’ve got equal opportunity around here. We ain’t just depending on one guy. We’ve got two All-Stars. It’s not just going to be all on me. I don’t get all of the glory when we win so I don’t get to take all the [blame] when we lose.”
It may be a fair statement, but like I said before, it wasn't very inspiring. The Hawks went on to have their most successful playoff run in over a decade, taking out the Orlando Magic in the first round and winning two games against the heavily favored Chicago Bulls in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.
Unfortunately, Johnson's numbers were once again much lower than expected. It also became clear that the Atlanta Hawks would never clear their second-round playoff hurdle without adding significantly more talent to their roster, something that Johnson's contract made virtually impossible.
2012: Joe Johnson Trade in the Works; Atlanta Rejoices
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In most situations, the trading of one of the top players in a team's history causes the hometown fans to fall into a bit of a depression. Even if the trade makes sense, many will cling to a sentimental attachment that they feel for all the years of excitement and production that their favorite player gave them.
This was not the case, however, when it was announced on ESPN.com that the Hawks and the New Jersey Nets had agreed to the framework for a trade that would send Joe Johnson away. The reaction from Atlanta sports writers, bloggers, and fans was overwhelmingly positive.
For Johnson, it can't feel good that the city where he became a perennial NBA All-Star is overjoyed to get rid of him. But in a lot of ways, he brought this on himself.
I can hear the chorus of "It's not his fault for taking that contract; you would too!" starting, but allow me to explain: It is completely his fault for taking that ridiculous contract.
He and his agent negotiated for the most money available with the full knowledge that it would hamstring the franchise financially for the foreseeable future.
Despite my well-documented disdain for LeBron James, even I have to give him credit for taking less money with Miami than he could have elsewhere in exchange for his team being able to surround him with more talent.
Joe Johnson did not give Atlanta any such option. He also didn't help himself by continually rebuffing the notion that he held any added responsibility to produce or lead the team, even when it was clear that his contract was wiping out any other opportunities the franchise had for significant improvement.
The New Jersey Nets will undoubtedly be better next season with Johnson in their lineup, but the future of the Hawks' franchise is even brighter without him in theirs.
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