September 07, 2011
The NBA lockout is spiraling into autumn, with no end in sight. Players swear they can make it an entire season without giving in to the owners' demands, and all kinds of sources from within ownership paint that group as one that wouldn't mind giving up an entire season to get what's theirs. But once the truth serum spikes the punch, both the owners and players would hop at the chance to put together an NBA season in full. To say nothing of the team employees or those who make their living making your life easier as an NBA fan while they pour you a beer or park your car.
Oh, and the fans. They'd like to see the lockout end, we're guessing. So we've heard.
However, some probably don't mind the break. For whatever reason, this lockout might be the best thing to happen to them in years. Let's get into those reasons, team by team. Individual by individual; be they players, executives, coaches, or whomever strikes our fancy. We've nothing better to do.
Johnson, by all accounts, is as sweet and unassuming a man as you'll meet in this tawdry and assumption-rich league. No player in the NBA, literally, has more to lose during this lockout; but we can't help but get the feeling that Johnson doesn't mind the time away from the spotlight. And the glare on that six-year, $123 million extension he signed a year ago.
His NBA introduction was innocuous enough. The Hawks wing scorer followed up a relatively unheralded career at the University of Arkansas with a short stint amongst the Boston Celtics in 2001-02 before being shipped to Phoenix for Tony Delk and Rodney Rogers midway through his rookie year. It was the equivalent of a pennant-chasing team dumping a prospect for a left-handed middle reliever and a potential fifth starter.
Delk and Rogers helped the C's, but Johnson blossomed after being handed plenty of minutes, plenty of shots, and plenty of chances in Phoenix's (eventual) high-possession offense. As a result, his services became too rich for Phoenix's blood in 2005, and he was shipped to Atlanta in a sign-and-trade deal that quite literally broke the Hawks' ownership team apart. The front office wanted Johnson at any price, and Steve Belkin (a 30 percent shareholder in the Hawks) refused to be a part of it. In the end, though, the Hawks' "brain trust" "won" out.
Johnson became a reliable 20-point scorer and All-Star in Atlanta, but this is probably what should happen when you get to dominate the ball and take as many shots as Johnson takes. He isn't a chucker, most of the time, but his all-around game and overall efficiency leave a lot to be desired. In an era where wings like LeBron James(notes), Dwyane Wade(notes) and Kobe Bryant(notes) regularly see their Player Efficiency Ratings roam between the 25 to 30 range, Johnson has never seen his top 20 in a single season.
And yet the Hawks, desperate to hang on to their "star" in the same way they were desperate to trade cap space, picks and Boris Diaw(notes) (the 2005-06 Most Improved Player in the season following his move from Atlanta to Phoenix), re-signed Johnson to a massive deal following the 2009-10 season. His five years and $67 million from 2005-2010 weren't enough, so the Hawks penned the then 29-year-old to a six-year, $123.7 million deal last summer. I can't even put together a joke after writing that, because 14 months later, it still leaves me gobsmacked.
Johnson responded with averages of 18.2 points, 4.7 assists and four rebounds a game; mainly because he's Joe Johnson. There is absolutely nothing in Johnson's career arc that would suggest anything different than Joe Johnson playing exactly the way he's played since entering the league nearly 10 years ago, and yet the Hawks have decided to turn Joe into the bad guy whenever he lets Kobe, LeBron or D-Wade pick up a check. Should they all dine together. Work with me.
For some reason, this borderline All-Star (again, think of all those minutes, and all those possessions he uses up to get those numbers) outpaces the best and brightest of MVP candidates. And the best part for Joe? Besides getting to cash those checks? None of this is his fault. He never held out, he was never a prat about things, and though he chased money in going to Atlanta and leaving the team with the NBA's best record in 2004-05, he never made a fuss about it. That was the Hawks' job, apparently.
He's had incredible timing, and incredible luck. Johnson was a free agent during a 2005 summer that saw the Hawks (after trading for Antoine Walker's(notes) expiring contract the summer before, and essentially tanking a season to pick up Marvin Williams(notes)) flush with cap space, with no player apparently willing to grab a hold of it. None of the 2001 draft restricted free agents wanted any part of Atlanta, and Johnson (to those who obsess over per-game stats) gave off the scent of a franchise player to-be.
In 2010? Atlanta's ownership just wanted to hang on to an outfit that paid through the teeth on its way to a few fruitless home playoff games every spring. There was the possibility that New York or Chicago could have pried Johnson away at half the price (as stipulated by the then-current collective bargaining agreement), but Atlanta put the kibosh on that during the first day of free agency by re-upping Joe to the highest amount possible. A year later, it's still as ridiculous.
And yet, with the lockout humming summarily (if not merrily) along, you don't hear a word about Joe. We're guessing the man wants to keep it that way.
This wasn't the case back in 1998, when Kevin Garnett's(notes) second contract seemed to be in the third paragraph of every NBA lockout story, whether the writer in question was documenting an NBA/NBA Players Association negotiation gone wrong, a charity game/fat camp, or even the announcement that the league would embark on a truncated 50-game season. He was the poster child, just three years removed from his senior year of high school, signing a massive deal with the Minnesota Timberwolves supposedly based on potential and little else. Ignoring the fact that, even though he was an injury replacement, the second-year forward made his first All-Star team months before his contract extension.
He was the target. I still recall Dave Kindred penning a breathless column on Los Angeles Dodgers signee Kevin Brown, and how he was money well-spent (this was after KG made his second All-Star team, in 1998) in the face of such stupid NBA largesse and the nutty Garnett contract. Brown was 33 at the time, 11 years older than Garnett, and he'd go on to a spectacularly injury-plagued time spent mostly on the shelf, culminating in an appearance in the Mitchell Report. Garnett grew into, perhaps, the most versatile big man of all time.
Nobody's apologized to KG for turning him into the poster child, and while this might not be on Joe Johnson's mind as he flips through the channels and checks his Internet browser, you have to believe that he loves the relative obscurity. Garnett was absolutely raked through the coals, though it turned out that he more than deserved his extension. Johnson? Through no fault of his own, he doesn't deserve anywhere near what he's making, or what he's due to make. And yet, nobody remembers to point to his 2010 contract extension as they hit the third paragraph of a lockout recap.
You get the feeling Joe wants to keep it that way. And though he should be at the front of the capitulation line amongst players (both because of the money he could lose, and the embarrassment his contract could cause) hoping to end the lockout, Johnson is getting a bit of a free ride. At least in comparison to what Kevin Garnett had to go through.
Good for him. It's why he's our first installment amongst individuals that likely never want this lockout to end.