Ending fears that the Hawks will never be able to get rid of their expansive cap room, Joe Johnson has decided that he wants to be a Hawk. It's exciting, but it also provokes a number of questions:
1. What purpose does the AJC's sports page serve in the world?
Could they have been any more asleep at the wheel on this one? Johnson told Marc Stein last Saturday that he asked Phoenix not to match the Hawks' offer to him. Did the AJC have any wind of this? No. It was news to them, just like it was to the rest of us, that the Hawks ultimately reached a deal with the Suns to ensure that they would not match the offer sheet. Compare the AJC's tepid coverage to the azcentral com here and here. More detail, more analysis, hell, they even talked about Manu Ginobili's reaction to the Raja Bell signing, as well as the various incidents that caused Johnson to want to leave.
And then Sekou Smith compounds his slumber in discussing the story by again botching analysis of trading draft picks: "More crucial than the loss of Diaw for the Hawks would be the loss of the draft picks, an integral part of the franchise's rebuilding plan." Gee, Sekou, you think the fact that the picks are lottery-protected might be important? If the picks are transferred in the next couple years, it will mean that the Hawks' rebuilding plan will be virtually complete because they'll be a young team in the playoffs. In essence, the Hawks gave up Boris Diaw, who was mostly worthless in his two years in Atlanta because he's petrified of shooting, and two picks that, in all likelihood, won't be made for several years. The more important question in terms of evaluating the deal is...
2. Is Joe Johnson a maximum deal player?
An excellent question. As an initial matter, his contract is front-loaded, which is good, since he'll be paid a lot next year when they team isn't very good and then he'll make less as the team matures and the need to add additional pieces grows. According to 82games.com, he was one of the best players on the Suns last year, although he's clearly no Zarko Cabarkapa. The Suns were especially better in terms of field goal percentage when Johnson was on the floor, but they suffered in rebounding. (A possible concern: teams often suffer in terms of their rebounding when they have guards who can't stop penetration and therefore the big men have to help on defense and are out of position to rebound missed shots.)
The major concern I have is this: Johnson scored a ton of points from open threes, created because he was playing with a great point guard and a host of quality offensive options. The Hawks have neither right now, although we're all hoping that Marvin Williams and Josh Childress turn into grade-A offensive players. Johnson is a great shooter, but is his offensive game well-rounded enough to thrive in Atlanta? The Suns sure suffered without him against the Spurs, which implies that his value was more than simply as a jump shooter. On the other hand, he went from .305 to .478 in three-point percentage and .430 to .461 in field goal percentage when Steve Nash arrived, so maybe he does need to play with another good point guard.
The good news about Johnson is that the Hawks have him for the prime of his career. He'll be 24 on Opening Night this year and the Hawks have him through age 28. Unlike their past free agent signings, they are getting Johnson at the right time. His scoring numbers have improved each year in the league. He's also durable, having not missed a regular season game in the past three years. Most importantly, he serves a need for the Hawks - filling the point guard position - and he makes the team more attractive to other free agents. If he can play and defend the point guard position, then the Hawks can create tremendous match-up problems for opposing teams by starting two 6'7 guards. He also fits Billy Knight's vision of a team full of 6'7 to 6'10 athletes running up and down the floor, so we'll get closer to seeing if that vision will pay off with wins. (It was also Pete Babcock's vision when he acquired Lorenzen Wright and Isaiah Rider before the '99-'00 season and that didn't work out so well.)
3. Can Johnson play and defend the point guard position?
Obviously, he's going to have a hard time defending players like Allen Iverson and Stephon Marbury, so one question is going to be whether he has the post skills to even out the equation by exploiting his height. (If opponents switch their small guards onto Childress, then the question will become whether he has the skills to score with his back to the basket.) The more important question will be whether he can handle the ball and distribute it properly. 82.games.com has some funky passing stats that show that Joe had a better assist/bad pass ratio than Dwayne Wade or Chauncey Billups. What does that mean? Who the hell knows? The stats show that he didn't turn the ball over much and he seems to be a good passer, so the signs are encouraging that he can play point. We'll see how he does as a full-time point guard, although I have a suspicion that Johnson will be most effective paired with Salim Stoudemire in the backcourt.
4. Has Ray Ratto had an original idea in his life?