Joe Johnson’s Ridiculous Contract Was A Necessity.
Pay close attention; I don’t do this a lot. I’m about to admit that I was wrong. Yours truly wrote the following statement on July 1, when it was first announced that Atlanta’s Joe Johnson was about to be resigned for the absolute maximum:
It was written in a moment of frustration. Joe Johnson received what has turned out to be the biggest free agent contract of the biggest free agency period ever. With LeBron, Chris Bosh, and DWade teaming up in Miami for less money, Joe Johnson has become the wealthiest player during this free agency, at least in terms of salary. Does Joe deserve to make more money than ESPN’s three top-ranked free agents? Most assuredly not.
“Don’t get me wrong, it’s the home team and I enjoy playing there and I enjoy when the fans do come out,’ Johnson said. ‘But by no stretch of the imagination have we got one of the best home crowds. We don’t. I can’t really even say it’s getting there. In the playoffs, yeah, they’re there. Throughout the regular season, it’s not much of a big difference from what it was. It’s different, but it’s not that big of a difference than what is was when I first got there.”
SLAM Online 5 January 2010
Joe Johnson is best-suited to play two roles on a basketball court: running mate to a phenomenal player, a Dwyane Wade, a Kobe Bryant; or on a team like his previous one, the D’Antoni Phoenix Suns that played incredibly fast team ball. Instead, he’s going to make his money and try to be the leader on a mediocre team in what will be the most difficult division in professional basketball.
However, my criticism of the Hawks organization was unfounded, and here’s why.
Many Hawks fans (myself included) wanted the Hawks to take a year or three and start over. Get rid of Joe and preferably Marvin Williams, focus on Josh Smith’s emotional development and keeping Al Horford happy with a healthy contract extension, and rebuild with some savvy free agent signings and through the draft while Jamal Crawford plays the 2 in Joe’s absence. Everyone that thought this sort of strategy could work was not really thinking about the plausible future, only the potential.
Here’s the issue: The Hawks were in the red $20 million after last season. The Atlanta Spirit, the management group that owns the Hawks, the NHL Atlanta Thrashers, and Philips Arena where both teams play, has put the team up for sale. Without a superstar, The Atlanta Spirit would almost surely have to consider moving the team, although this would increase the timetable for paying off Philips Arena, which is only 11 years old.
Signing Joe Johnson – albeit to a grossly inflated contract – was a necessity. Hawks management had to get Joe for the maximum before another team with exorbitant cap space set aside for LeBronnukah came in and gobbled him up as a consolation prize. If the Hawks had attempted a sign-and-trade with Joe, what player(s) would they have received? Tracy McGrady from New York? Luol Deng from Chicago? Courtney Lee and Devin Harris from New Jersey? All of these trades make for interesting conversation, but none of them cures what ails the Hawks. Good players in their own respective rights, none of the above-mentioned trades sell more tickets than Johnson, and assuredly none of these players pushes the Hawks further into contention than Joe.
While it’s not a lesser of two evils argument, it is difficult to see the positives in the short-term. However, one positive is that the Hawks only need to struggle in the short-term. Next year, the Hawks owe Josh Smith $11.6 million, Jamal Crawford a hair over $10 million in the last year of his contract, Marvin William a bit over $6.7 million in wasted funds, Mike Bibby $5.5 million, Zaza Pachulia $4.2 million and the other salaries which total nearly $48.7 million, that is, before Joe Johnson’s colossal contract is added. They currently owe $63.7 million before the Phoenix trade exception from received for Josh Childress, which helps a bit. However, the Hawks are getting dangerously close to the luxury tax, which is set at $70.307 million this year, and they still need to sign three more players to meet the league requirement.
Next year, however, the Hawks are off the hook for Jamal Crawford and Maurice Evans, and if the management has any sense, they’ll package one or both of these expiring contracts (and maybe Marvin Williams?) near the trade deadline. Maybe they’ll use it for more space to offer Al Horford the money he’ll deserve in 2011, or maybe they’ll use it to assemble some pieces around the young nucleus.
The biggest argument for keeping Joe Johnson and paying him an exorbitant salary is the one it hurts me the most to make: No one wants to play in Atlanta. Superstars don’t long to come to Atlanta. There’s no basketball pedigree. The South is a bastion of college football; it’s not the urban environment that the NBA trends toward. The only title the Hawks have is from the 1950’s when the franchise was located in St. Louis. I don’t get this; if anyone in Atlanta’s marketing department is awake, it doesn’t show. Atlanta is a hip-hop capital right now. Musical acts are discovered there year after year. The culture is decidedly urban. How have they not capitalized on this?
For both the short term and the long term, the Hawks had to resign Joe. Is Joe’s ridiculous contract going to keep the Hawks afloat long enough to avoid moving the franchise to a different city? Probably not, although the mechanism that speeds up the timetable for Philips Arena’s building cost if the Hawks move probably would prevent a move.
Bright side? The Hawks will look better than last season. No one got considerably better besides Miami, Memphis, New York, and Chicago, with several teams losing significant pieces of their teams (Cleveland, Utah, Phoenix, Toronto), with many teams remaining similar in makeup as last year. 6th Man of the Year returns in Jamal Crawford. A nucleus of Josh Smith, Al Horford, and Joe Johnson is still formidable. We may put more butts in seats if we’re able to land Shaq or Brad Miller in free agency as was reported several times last week. A new coach in Larry Drew will offer our players more options than Mike Woodson’s ISO-Joe offense. Free agency got us excited about the potential.
All 14 of us Hawks fans felt betrayed by Joe’s ridiculous contract and the apparent ineptitude of the management. This was frustration and the passion of wanting more than mediocrity. However, if it means saving the franchise, people should put their money where their mouth is and buy season tickets. It’s tough to swallow the realization that no one wants to play for your team, but that’s a mentality that fans can help change.
UPDATE: Maybe the basketball gods aren’t such jerks. According to Dan Aldridge of NBA.com, the Cleveland Cavaliers are looking to ship Shaq off for Marvin Williams. Silver lining!