The NBA’s 30 best go-to players (#12: Joe Johnson)

10.13.09 8 years ago 14 Comments
(photo. Zach Wolfe)

(photo. Zach Wolfe)

Who do you want your offense to run through with everything on the line? Counting down 30th to 1st (one per team), I’ve ranked the League’s go-to guys…

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#12: JOE JOHNSON, Atlanta Hawks

At this point, it’s getting old to continue calling Joe Johnson underrated. Old, and, you would think, unnecessary. But as it turns out, J.J. still has more doubters than just about any franchise player in the NBA.

Take the name out of the equation and evaluate the resume: Four straight seasons averaging about 21 points, four rebounds and five assists; three straight All-Star nods; the clear leader and top player on a Top-4 playoff seed in ’09, who led that young group to the conference semifinals one year after giving the eventual NBA champions all they could handle in a seven-game series. On paper, the man has done as much or more in Atlanta than Brandon Roy has in Portland, than Chris Paul in New Orleans, than T-Mac in Houston, than Chris Bosh in Toronto, than Gilbert Arenas in Washington. In the ’09 playoffs he took down D-Wade, who was arguably the best player in the NBA last season. Give that same list of accomplishments to one of the League’s golden children, and you’d have to fight for room on his sack. And yet Joe Johnson is regularly considered more of a paper tiger than a potent killer.

Johnson is as talented and as tough of a matchup as just about any guard in the world. He can play three positions, and guard up to four positions. Standing every bit his listed 6-7, 240 pounds, he combines a reliable jumper with a strong off-the-dribble game, the passing ability of a point guard, and solid defensive skills.

In crunch-time, three stats tell the story: Last season Johnson was the League’s 8th best fourth-quarter scorer (6.2 points); among the NBA’s top 15 scorers overall, only four averaged fewer turnovers than Johnson (2.5); and in “clutch time” he hit 91% of his free throws, third among the League’s top 20 clutch time scorers and better than respected ice-veined closers like Dirk, Ginobili and Pierce. In short, Johnson produces in the game’s most important moments while also protecting the ball, and he’s the guy you want at the line when it’s time to stop an opponent’s rally.

Problem is, Joe and the Hawks seem to have hit their ceiling. After clearing the first-round playoff hurdle, they got smoked by the Cavs in last year’s conference semifinals, and it seems unlikely Atlanta would really put a scare into the East’s top-tier of Cleveland, Orlando and Boston next spring.

Similar to Bosh, we’ll learn more about Johnson’s status as a true go-to guy next summer, when he hits the free agent market. The last time J.J. was a free agent, he chose to be the franchise player for a (then) lowly Atlanta squad rather than a role player on a contending Phoenix squad. This time around, fully in his prime as a player, he’ll face a similar choice; stay in Atlanta or go to another team where he’d be The Man, or settle into a #2 or #3 role.

A player who has go-to tendencies in his blood, however, is wired to choose Option A. That’s what happened with Allen Iverson this summer, a lifelong #1 option who had to face his future as a role player. The same mentality that made A.I. great also limited his options in free agency. Now, take another elite player who hasn’t been a go-to guy his whole life, somebody like Ginobili. When he’s near the end of his career and looking for a team, he won’t have a problem getting work because he’s proven he can be a role player and isn’t wired to desire to be The Man. So which one is Joe Johnson: an Iverson or a Ginobili?

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13. Danny Granger
14. Steve Nash
15. Kevin Durant
16. Gilbert Arenas
17. Derrick Rose
18. Chris Bosh
19. Andre Iguodala
20. Tracy McGrady
21. Baron Davis
22. Michael Redd
23. Devin Harris
24. Kevin Martin
25. Al Jefferson
26. O.J. Mayo
27. Stephen Jackson
28. Nate Robinson
29. Boris Diaw
30. Rip Hamilton

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