Even with all the accomplishments in his basketball career—first-round draft pick, four straight NBA All-Star Game appearances, member of the U.S. national team, cornerstone of the Atlanta Hawks’ transformation from laughingstock to contender—he’s rarely mentioned in the same breath with players such as LeBron James(notes) or Kobe Bryant(notes).
Which is just fine with Johnson.
“It’s been like that pretty much my whole life,” he said Monday, sitting at his locker after practicing for Game 2 of the Eastern Conference playoffs against Milwaukee. “It doesn’t bother me one bit, man.”
With some guys, those words might sound disingenuous. Not from Johnson, who doesn’t have a catchy nickname, doesn’t show much emotion on the court, and doesn’t play with one of the league’s high-profile teams.
Instead of being hailed for helping Atlanta rise from a 13-win disaster the year before he arrived to a 53-win team that finished third in the Eastern Conference this season, Johnson faces persistent questions about whether he’s truly one of those players you can build a championship team around, the sort who’ll take—and, more important, make—that big shot in Game 7 of the playoffs.
For the Hawks, there are no such questions.
“I can’t say it loud enough,” coach Mike Woodson said, poking his desk for reinforcement. “He’s been the foundation on which this team was built. There’s nothing he cannot do on the basketball floor. I think he’s proven that over the years he’s been here. The team has gotten better every year he’s been here. And the players around him have gotten better.
“Joe Johnson,” Woodson added, “is the truth.”
The truth of the matter is this: Johnson has averaged more than 20 points and at least 4.1 rebounds and 4.4 assists in each of his five seasons with the Hawks. He’s a 6-foot-7 guard who can handle the ball well enough to play significant minutes at point guard, but versatile enough to move to small forward when Atlanta goes to a quicker lineup. His size causes matchup problems at both ends of the court.
“He’s very good with the ball,” said Milwaukee’s Luc Richard Mbah a Moute(notes), who had the unenviable assignment of guarding Johnson in Game 1 of the playoffs. “He can just raise up and shoot over people. He’s really tough to guard because he uses his body real well. He bounces off people. He can always get his shot off.”
The Bucks discovered that in Game 1.
Johnson got off to a sluggish start, but in the closing minutes of a furious Milwaukee comeback he swished a crucial 19-foot fadeaway with Mbah a Moute—a defensive specialist—right in his face. The Atlanta star finished with his typical all-around numbers—22 points, seven rebounds, five assists and three steals—in a 102-92 victory.
“Nothing against fans or the media or anything else,” Bucks coach Scott Skiles said, “but I think I can make a case that nobody knows the league more than the coaches, and they know full well how good Joe Johnson is.”
But two players ahead of him on the recognition pecking order—Bryant and Miami’s Dwyane Wade(notes)—have won NBA championships. James has made it to the finals and is favored to get back after leading the Cavaliers to their second straight 60-win season.
As for Johnson, he’s never made it farther than the conference finals, and that came during his final season with the Phoenix Suns, when he was more of a role player than a star. Since coming to the Hawks in 2005, Johnson’s deepest playoff run was a year ago, when the Hawks were swept by James and the Cavaliers in the second round.
“The recognition goes to the guys who are winners, the guys who go deep in the playoffs, the guys who carry their teams on their backs during the tough moments,” Hawks teammate Maurice Evans(notes) said. “That’s what this team has to do, and Joe in particular. If we get to the Eastern Conference finals or the (NBA) finals, anything like that, he’s going to get more than enough credit for that accomplishment.”
Even so, Johnson does little to draw attention to himself—good or bad. He’s not a high-profile endorser who spends as much time filming commercials as he does working on his jumper. He’s never gotten in trouble off the court. He’s a simple man who just loves playing basketball and seems to care little for any of the extracurricular benefits.
“I don’t think Joe is really into all that,” Woodson said. “Joe just wants to win and play well. And he’s done that for our ballclub. Everything else will take care of itself.”
Johnson figures to draw plenty of attention this summer, though he’s again likely to take a secondary role to players such as James and Wade in what figures to be the best free-agent class in NBA history.
Before the season, Johnson turned down the Hawks’ offer for a contract extension. That’s just good business, a decision that will surely make him a very rich man no matter where he plays.
Johnson makes it clear that he’d like to finish what he’s started in Atlanta. There’s little doubt he’d be more comfortable staying in a low-profile setting than signing with a team such as the New York Knicks, but the money has to be right.
Maybe if the Hawks do something special in these playoffs, Johnson will finally get some overdue recognition along with a big paycheck.
“In my eyes, he’s one of the top players in the league, right up there with the LeBrons and Kobes and Dwayne Wades,” teammate Joe Smith(notes) said. “I really think his name should be mentioned with those guys.”