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NBA / May 11, 2012 / 11:00 am

Joe Johnson & The Real Problem With The Hawks

Joe Johnson

Joe Johnson, Dime #37

“Welcome to Atlanta where the playas play” … stop it. Stop the chorus of the Jermaine Dupri/Ludacris hit single right there.

It was an embarrassment.

I don’t know what the ratings were for Game 4 between the Atlanta Hawks and the Boston Celtics, but it couldn’t have been funnier than watching a “Martin” re-run. The final score read 101-79, but it doesn’t tell the full story. It was a blowout of epic proportions. Fans at the TD Garden should get their money back and fans watching from home should get their time back. This type of poor basketball display is what initiates the discussion about the root of it all. The focus instantly shifted away from the series itself back to who is to blame.

“Too cool,” Shaquille O’Neal described Joe Johnson on “Inside the NBA” after that game.

Shaq was adamant, calling out Johnson as the reason why the Hawks got dismantled. Charles Barkley and Kenny Smith agreed with his assessment. From a former superstar standpoint, the easiest way to judge is to criticize the team’s best player. The cliché is that the star receives all the credit when their team wins, and all the fault when they lose. Shaq can immediately relate to this standard because he used to be in the same position as Johnson. This logic however, isn’t applicable in this case and is narrow-minded on Shaq’s part. It completely omits the larger issues involved.

Joe Johnson shouldn’t be considered the cause behind the Hawks’ playoff demise. He’s the least of their problems, really. Because of his laidback attitude and the six year, $119 million contract he signed during the superstar free agent class of 2010, it is almost common nature to point the figure at him. But Johnson has performed as well as several of his current contemporaries. And this reality is one measure to gauge his overall impact – or rather what should be reasonable expectations.

Out of the shooting guards in this year’s postseason, Johnson is easily the third-best player of the group. Only Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade are better and still in their respective prime. Ray Allen and Manu Ginobili are more accomplished, but a fraction of their former selves. James Harden appears to have arrived after his close-out performance against Dallas, while Paul George hasn’t quite figured it all out just yet.

Johnson’s recent playoff numbers did leave more to be desired: 17.2 PPG, 37.3 percent from the field, and 25 percent from downtown. Nevertheless, Johnson’s elite size (6-8 and 240 pounds) and natural smoothness to his game makes him a matchup nightmare. He can post any cat up — unlike LeBron — or the shoot the jumper in their mug consistently in the clutch — unlike LeBron. Whenever he had Avery Bradley or Paul Pierce in the restricted area, he was money the whole series. Johnson shot 69 percent (11-for-16) versus Bradley and 61 percent (11-for-18) with Pierce on him, per NBA.com’s StatsCube. The Celtics didn’t have an answer for him when he was that close to the bucket.

Conversely, these same qualities are shared by another fellow superstar who now also shares his former coach. His team was largely dependent on his scoring prowess and got ousted in the first round by another defensively-stalwart squad: Carmelo Anthony.

‘Melo was also a beast down on the block. It didn’t matter if Shane Battier or King James was checking him. He was killing both of them from point blank distance. According to StatsCube, he shot 50 percent (12-for-24) and 54 percent (21-for-39) against them, respectively, and in spite of his dominance from this spot, Mike Woodson lacked the offensive ingenuity to reliably get him the rock there and simultaneously incorporate the rest of their teammates in the process. It went from Iso-Joe in Hotlanta to Iso-‘Melo in The Big Apple. The emphasis on one player to control the ball for long stretches isn’t conducive to playoff success. Anthony averaged 27.8 points versus the Heat, but his shooting percentages (41.9 field-goal percentage and 22.2 from three) were just as poor as Johnson’s. Both the Hawks and Knicks are going fishin’ and were unceremoniously dismissed from the postseason yet again.

Yet, while there are parallels between their games and lackluster playoff accomplishments, it is the coaching connection that sheds light on the surface of the real problems facing Joe Johnson and the Hawks.

The irony of Shaq dissing Johnson this time around, however, is that the previous time he did so, he was actually on to something that’s now relevant.

“I love Joe Johnson and I hope he doesn’t get mad at me, but he’s not a $20 million a year guy. Business-wise, Atlanta isn’t making that much money. But if you are going to offer a kid a lot of money, he’s going to take it. I think we need a system that protects the owners from each other,” said O’Neal to The Times-Picayune last summer.

“In this economy, if you upset some people now, they’re not going to buy any tickets. Guys (owners) have to be responsible for the business they conduct,” continued Shaq.

The Hawks’ troubles do not stem from Johnson’s personality. That’s irrelevant. There’s always a scarcity in top-tier talent and the demand is always high, driving the market value for a player of his caliber. But the latter points on ownership are what should resonate. And while Shaq possesses the qualities of a potential owner, he should’ve recognized that their underlying concerns derive from those calling the shots, not Johnson as their best player.

As is the case with any great organization, management distills the leadership and culture that filters down to all of their employees. Yes, the NBA is very much a player’s league. But the infrastructure and environment needs to be in place in order to accomplish goals to begin with. Ownership has to make accountability and winning a priority through expressing it with the media and entrusting the right people into positions of authority. They are the ultimate decision-makers. So if they aren’t proactive and making personnel moves based on the team’s dynamic, the morale of complacency becomes acceptable and expected. How can anyone expect the Hawks to reach their potential when they haven’t been placed in the best possible opportunity to do it?

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