That was according to Charles Barkley, leading up to yesterday’s Hawks/Heat game. Recapping Joe Johnson‘s subpar showing in the series’ first three games, Barkley blurted out, “He can’t be the best player on a team.” As Kenny Smith was fixing his mouth for a nice way to ask Chuck, “The hell are you talking about?” Barkley clarified that he thinks J.J. is better suited as a complimentary player (like he was in Phoenix) rather than a franchise guy. While you can win with guys like Joe on your roster, you’re not gonna win if he’s The Guy.
Can’t say I agree. These aren’t the pre-2008 Hawks, the Lottery regulars for whom Joe was all set to go down as another Mitch Richmond (23 career playoff games). In Atlanta’s back-to-back playoff runs in ’08 and ’09, Joe has — short of actually, you know, advancing in the playoffs — done his job as the Franchise Guy for a team nobody ever expects to do anything. True, he’s struggled in this Miami series (13.7 ppg, 37% FG, 52% FT), but don’t forget how close J.J. had the Hawks to upsetting the Celtics last year (20.0 ppg, 40% FG, 90% FT), don’t forget that Atlanta wouldn’t have won 47 games or secured a 4-seed this year without J.J. taking them there, and don’t forget he’s still 27 years old and leading a young team with a thin bench and Mike Woodson for a coach.
Is Joe Johnson Top-10 in the League? No. He’s well behind Kobe, Wade, LeBron, Pierce, Duncan, CP3, Chauncey, Dirk, Parker, Nash and Deron; but he’s at least on a pretty even plane with Brandon Roy, (healthy) Arenas, Bosh, Carmelo, Yao, Dwight, Vince and Iguodala: Franchise Guys who have proven they can win, just haven’t taken it to that next-next level on a championship-caliber squad.
You could see the flaws last night. In a game where Wade was just bad and the Heat struggled all night to generate offense, the Hawks — and specifically Joe — took too long to put them away. After Miami cut the lead to three late in the third quarter, Johnson (14 pts, 5-12 FG) had a chance to deliver one of those crowd-killing daggers that Top-10 guys make out of habit and the Second-Tier guys make less frequently. Joe promptly fired a pass to the Miami bench. And as Atlanta held off the Heat down the stretch, J.J. did pick up some assists, but left the clutch shot-making to Mike Bibby and Flip Murray.
But with the series tied at 2-2 and going back to Atlanta, Johnson has ample opportunity to start making that leap into the top tier. Taking down Wade in Round 1 would be a start, then he’ll get tested against LeBron in Round 2. As he learned last year against Boston, win or lose, you need to be tested against the top tier before you can join the ranks.
Is Joe Johnson a great player, or just a good player? Can he be the best player on a championship team?