Clarity is a magnificent comfort. Right or wrong, clarity about a situation is its own marvelous drug, able to mask tension and doubt in even the most confusing of circumstances.
Over the course of the summer and now almost a full season of basketball, there has been a long should they/shouldn't they discussion around the future status of Joe Johnson.
Do they retain the 4-time Atlanta Hawks all-star to hold onto the core roster that has improved every season since 2004? Or do the Hawks investigate life after Joe Johnson, using his free agency as either a financial catharsis or to acquire new talent.
Either way, though it was murky last offseason, it has been made clear to us now.
It's time to let Joe go.
We admit, it's hardly the original thought. BlogABull wrote the ultimate thesis on this a month ago, ably breaking down the break down of players at the age and mileage of players similar to Joe.
Players like Michael Finley and Jerry Stackhouse, who once effortlessly played 38+ mpg, broke down hard by age 31. Several players in the 18 PER crowd saw their PER nosedive by age 31 (Michael Finley, Rip Hamilton, Steve Smith, Jim Paxson, Alvin Robertson). In fact, nobody with a PER below 19 from age 26-28 ended up with a 29-33 Score over max level. (Btw, since Finley keeps coming up in comparisons, I decided to look them up side by side. Really similar. You don't want to click Finley's player card to see his stats after age 30.) I'd say JJ's chances aren't good.
Next, Kevin Pelton also posited that a max deal for Johnson, as he is said to want, could be poison.
There are a couple of factors at play here. First, Johnson's statistics have never matched his reputation. Second, players of Johnson's ilk--above-average starting wings--have tended to decline in a hurry in their early 30s. By year three, just two of Johnson's top 10 comparables (Steve Smith and Jalen Rose) were offering their team any kind of value. A max deal for Johnson could end up very ugly.
One of the things we most appreciated about former Hawks GM Billy Knight was that he was risk averse when it came to tying the company down with long contracts for max dollars. He lowballed Kenyon Martin and Erick Dampier and we are thankful that he did.
Now, Rick Sund has the issue of an ever improving franchise, rising to new levels of relevance and record, and the decision of whether or not to retain the services of the player who has been at the center of its rise.
We already got an inkling for Sund's intentions as he attempted to extend Johnson's contract in this past offseason to the tune of an incredible 4 years, and 65 million. That Johnson turned that down indicated not so much that he didn't want to continue in Atlanta, but that there might be more gold in them thar free agency hills.
He might be right, but the Hawks should breathe a sigh of relief, even before considering that the economic scope of the NBA could change severely in the next few seasons, that Johnson passed on a contact that could have financially hampered the franchise.
We believe there are three things that Johnson wants most: Winning, Money, and Usage.
Johnson has gone on record as saying he doesn't want to rebuild again, which makes some high-cap destinations unlikely, but rebuilding is only as painful as the lack of talent around you. If Johnson were to head to, say the Knicks, and they brought in another top level talent, and there was a max contract and plenty of shots available, we don't think there would be any trouble seeing Joe go to the Big Apple, for one example.
And neither should the Hawks, as two of the three things Joe wants the Hawks shouldn't be eager to give him.
First, there's the money. There is an economic thunderclap a-brewin' and the Hawks can ill afford to give a cap-breaking contract to a player that will spend the majority of it (at best) in major decline. They have younger players to lock up (Al Horford being the biggest) and might still need to address the point guard position should Jeff Teague not be starting caliber.
Like most franchises, the Hawks are just not financially able to carry a thirtysomething year old former all-star to retain some continuity for a season or two and then have to eat the rest of the contact.
In the short-term on the court, the Hawks already have a capable replacement in Jamal Crawford for one more season if Joe does go. Crawford has not proven to be as efficient scoring the ball and certainly not defensively, but the Joe Johnson of the next six seasons would not be either. The Hawks cannot pay max contract terms (or even close to it) for production that has already happened and most likely will not happen again. There may be a dip in total wins initially, but it doesn't make them a lottery team if Johnson moves on---and the Hawks would have the future flexibility to address shooting guard needs through free agency, trade, or in the draft.
We also believe that the Hawks can't afford to give Johnson the Usage he's accustomed to either. Since Johnson arrived in 2005 and began to stabilize the team, the talent level has improved around him and is ready/capable to provide more value. Josh Smith and Al Horford have already proven this on the court, to the point where the franchise's old habits of giving the ball to Johnson and getting out of his way has become a very unpopular notion among ardent Bird Watchers.
The Hawks future (and we say current) success relies not on the shoulders of their 4-time all star, but on their productive, efficient frontcourt. To max down on Johnson would be to neglect/ignore that Smith/Horford will have more to do with the Hawks success in coming seasons than Johnson. To us, this becomes more true every single game and will be even more apparent as time goes on.
And so as the team leverages their frontcourt more to their own success, why then does it make sense to max out Johnson? They would make better use of that money acquiring talent that will augment Smith/Horford and take advantage of their primes, not a max compensation player who will be in decline or tapped out by the time they reach their apex.
All Hawks fans have a deep appreciation for what Johnson has given to this franchise. He took the tough shots, played on both ends of the floor, and provided a steadying calm as the team improved from (13) wins to last year's (47) and their current (52) win pace. He is in the second tier of Atlanta Hawks greats, with Dan Roundfield, Mookie Blaylock, and such--no small company.
But that doesn't mean the franchise or its fans should get excited or get behind even the four year deal offered to Johnson over last summer, much less a longer deal this offseason.
Have a parade, throw him roses, give him a fond farewell. Put his image on the massive Hawks All-Star Banner that adorns the practice court floor. Do whatever needs to be done to recognize Joe's contributions as a Hawk--as long as it doesn't involve a new long term deal.
To us, now, that much is clear.