The Atlanta Hawks finished the 2009-10 NBA season in an unfortunate fashion, being swept by the Orlando Magic in the second round of the playoffs, while losing each game by 10 points or more.
Going into the offseason after this disappointment, the Hawks found themselves faced with another potentially dire situation, as their leading scorer, Joe Johnson, was to become an unrestricted free agent.
Compounding this problem were reports around the league, which hinted that Johnson might elect to leave Atlanta, especially since multiple teams (like the Knicks, Mavericks, and Bulls) were strongly interested in him.
But the Hawks opted to act early and aggressively to prevent Johnson from seriously considering his other options, offering him a full maximum-level contract before the official signing period even began.
Then on July 8, 2010, Johnson and the Hawks officially agreed to a massive six-year, $123.7 million contract.
The summer of 2010 saw one of the most talented free agent classes in the history of the NBA.
With players like 2010 All-NBA First Teamers LeBron James (the reigning MVP) and Dwyane Wade, as well as Second Teamers Dirk Nowitzki and Amar'e Stoudemire, becoming available, various franchises had spent the last year or more seeking to free salary cap space, so that they would be able to bring in some of these free agent talents.
However, none of these other big names were rewarded with the largest contract of the offseason. That honor went to Joe Johnson.
Johnson, at 29, is a four-time NBA All-Star and has only made an All-NBA Third Team once in his career (2010).
Compare that to the accolades of the four previously mentioned free agents:
James (25 years old): two-time MVP, six-time All-Star, four-time All-NBA First Team, two-time All-NBA Second Team.
Wade (28 years old): six-time All-Star, two-time All-NBA First Team, two-time All-NBA Second Team, one-time All-NBA Third Team
Nowitzki (32 years old): one-time MVP, nine-time All-Star, four-time All-NBA First Team, four-time All-NBA Second Team, two-time All-NBA Third Team
Stoudemire (27 years old): five-time All-Star, one-time All-NBA First Team, three-time All-NBA Second Team
Therefore, Joe Johnson is clearly not among the best few players in the 2010 free agent class.
And by no means is that a knock on Johnson. He is a very good player. He just isn't one of the greatest players out there.
And as a matter of fact, many people feel that Johnson cannot be a legitimate first option on a team which is contending for a championship.
Keeping that in mind, when one considers Johnson's six-year, $123.7 contract, with regard to the contracts of James (six years, $110 million), Wade (six years, $107 million), Nowitzki (four years, $80 million), and Stoudemire (five years, $100 million), it is needless to say that the Hawks flagrantly overpaid for his services.
Had the Atlanta waited until later into the free agency period to negotiate Johnson's contract, rather than agreeing to terms before the official signing period, they might have been able to work out a more favorable deal.
But now they will pay for their impatience.
Joe Johnson is 29 years old. For an NBA player, that means that he should probably be in the peak of his career.
However, he is under contract with the Hawks for six years, and traditional thought holds that, as a player delves deeper into their 30s, their skills begin to drastically diminish. A study published by the Wall Street Journal this past winter even sought to illustrate that NBA players' abilities peak at age 25.
Under his current contract, Johnson will be a Hawk until he is 35.
Therefore, he will be making maximum-level money for all of those years, while his talent is declining, effectively functioning as a burden on the team's salary cap.
Furthermore, this long contract could be a problem because, as NBA players get older, they become more susceptible to injuries. And although Johnson has not had many injury problems throughout his career, this may still be a cause for concern.
No, even with Johnson, the Hawks are not a serious contender for the 2011 NBA Championship.
Sure they went 53-29 last season, good for third in the East. And sure their young players, such as Marvin Williams, All-Star Al Horford, Jeff Teague, and rookie Jordan Crawford, will develop and contribute.
However, Mike Bibby and Jamal Crawford will likely decline, and furthermore, while the Hawks spent all of their money re-signing Johnson, many other teams in the Eastern Conference were loading up on talent.
The Heat signed LeBron and Chris Bosh, while also re-signing D-Wade.
The Celtics re-signed Paul Pierce and Ray Allen, while also inking Jermaine O'Neal and Shaquille O'Neal to deals.
The Bulls brought in a plethora of new talent, acquiring Carlos Boozer, Ronnie Brewer, and Kyle Korver, among others. And additionally, their young core is one of the best in the league, and they will continue to improve.
Even the Orlando Magic, who effortlessly sent the Hawks packing in the playoffs, managed to stand their ground, replacing the departed Matt Barnes with Quentin Richardson and Chris Duhon.
Therefore, it would seem to be a stretch for the Hawks to finish above any of these four teams (except maybe the Bulls), especially considering their showing in last season's playoffs.
Moreover, with the performances of the Celtics and Magic in the playoffs, and the expectations which have been placed upon the Heat, it is doubtful that the Hawks could get past any of these three in future playoff series.
Consequently, Atlanta will likely be stuck in a situation where they will be a middle-level playoff team, out of championship contention, while retaining little financial flexibility for future improvement, due to Johnson's bloated contract.
During the 2010 playoffs, Johnson scored 17.9 points per game, on 38.7 percent field goal shooting and 22 percent three-point shooting. These numbers were drastically down from his regular-season stats, which were 21.3 PPG, 45.8 FG percentage, and 36.9 three-point percentage.
Furthermore, in the first round of these playoffs, Johnson's Hawks were pushed to the brink of elimination by the sixth-seeded Milwaukee Bucks, who were undoubtedly the underdogs. The Bucks were even up 3-2 in the series, before the Hawks managed to come away with the final two games needed to advance.
But when they advanced, Johnson struggled to a degree which he likely never imagined possible. The second round series with the Magic saw Johnson average 12.8 points per game, on a dreadful 29.8 percent FG shooting and 17.6 percent three-point shooting.
These are not numbers which should be put up by a player with Johnson's new contract.
Additionally, Johnson has never had considerable success in the playoffs. With the Hawks, he has made the playoffs three times, losing in the first round once and being swept out of the second round twice. He has also seen his scoring average and shooting percentage from the regular season drop in every playoff appearance with Atlanta.
Therefore, it's hard to justify Johnson's franchise-player contract when he has never done anything impressive in the playoffs.
The Atlanta Hawks did not have to re-sign Joe Johnson. Rather, they had a few options which could have filled his combo-guard role at a much better bargain.
The Hawks already have an established guard in reigning Sixth Man of the Year Jamal Crawford, an individual who has a similar, although lesser, skill set as Johnson. But, most importantly, he makes less than half of what Johnson will now be making.
Atlanta also has second year point-guard Jeff Teague, last summer's 19th overall pick out of Wake Forest. He saw limited time last season, but during the Las Vegas Summer League, he showed promise, putting up 15.6 PPG and 4.2 assists per game, while shooting 52.2 percent from the field. Therefore, he could have cheaply picked up some of the scoring and assists which Johnson contributed, albeit at the low pay of an NBA rookie contract.
Had they not re-signed Johnson, another cheap, young player who could have figured prominently into the Hawks plans is the 2010 No. 27 overall selection in the draft, Jordan Crawford—perhaps most famous for dunking on LeBron last summer, only to have Nike officials confiscate and then release the recording of it.
Jo. Crawford, who has a scoring-oriented game, similar to that of his namesake Jamal, also played well in the LV Summer League, to the tune of 16.2 PPG, 3.4 RPG, 2.6 APG, and 1.8 steals per game. However, it now appears that, this season, Jo. Crawford will see little playing time, being buried on the bench behind all of the Hawks' other guards.
Lastly, Atlanta could have helped to fill the void left by Johnson with Josh Childress, had they not traded him. Childress decided to return to the NBA from Greece this offseason, and the Hawks signed him to a five-year, $33 million deal, in order to trade him to the Phoenix Suns for a future second round pick and a partial trade exception—very little for a player of his caliber.
Consequently, the Hawks could have likely been alright if they had not re-signed Joe Johnson. Using Ja. Crawford, Teague, Jo. Crawford, and Childress, Atlanta would have retained financial flexibility, while not experiencing too much of a drop in production.
Additionally, were this to have happened, the Hawks would have been able to pursue top-tier free agents, such as Chris Paul or Deron Williams (to replace the aging Mike Bibby), in the future.
However, this did not happen. Instead, Atlanta Hawks are stuck with Joe Johnson for the long haul, but really, only time will tell if he will be able to come close to earning the money which made him the highest paid free agent of 2010.