Over the past few seasons, perception and reality have spun in very different directions for the Atlanta Hawks.
Five seasons of averaging 20-plus points per game made Joe Johnson a relatively well-known commodity, and his success in a role as Atlanta's highest scorer—and go-to isolation option—earned him six consecutive All-Star nods.
But while Johnson's standing as the preeminent Hawk was once completely valid, that classification hasn't been all that accurate for years.
He's a sturdy enough player, scorer and ball-handler, but Al Horford and Josh Smith ascended past Johnson long ago, even as Johnson's highly difficult fadeaways and leaners led us to believe otherwise. He played the part of the franchise player even as his efficiency dwindled, making the mammoth contract the Hawks so generously awarded him that much more painful, and his repute that much more curious.
I don't come to bury Johnson himself, merely the perception that the Hawks needed him; so few NBA players are "needed" for $89 million over the next four seasons. Though Atlanta had comfortably remained in the strange middle of the Eastern Conference pool, that deal sufficiently curbed any solution that Danny Ferry could conjure.
And so out went Joe, and in comes the highly unfamiliar but completely welcomed cap space. Horford and Smith were rather indisputably the best of the Hawks before Johnson's deal, but now there's hardly even a conversation. They, along with Jeff Teague, will give Ferry options and flexibility for a more stable rebuild—one that never would have been possible with that $124 million mistake still on the books.
This season, the Hawks may regress ever so slightly without Johnson around. For all of his limitations, he was a productive player. When he deferred within the offense, things were actually quite potent. It will be different without such a ball-dominant player around, and it's entirely possible that the rest of the Hawks will have to grow into the expanded roles created by Johnson's absence.
But this is a franchise made indisputably better by his absence, if only because the sudden void of salary offers more hope to Atlanta than Johnson ever could.
The Hawks have their two burgeoning All-Stars, a complementary prospect in Teague and oodles of cap space to play with in 2013. The stagnation that has hung with Atlanta for the last half-decade dissipated overnight, and while the Brooklyn Nets may have needed a player like Johnson to consummate the re-signing of Deron Williams, that doesn't in any way negate the fact that the Hawks are better off without him.