Joe Johnson & The Real Problem With The Hawks

“Welcome to Atlanta where the playas play” … stop it. Stop the chorus of the Jermaine Dupri/Ludacris hit single right there.

It was an embarrassment.

I don’t know what the ratings were for Game 4 between the Atlanta Hawks and the Boston Celtics, but it couldn’t have been funnier than watching a “Martin” re-run. The final score read 101-79, but it doesn’t tell the full story. It was a blowout of epic proportions. Fans at the TD Garden should get their money back and fans watching from home should get their time back. This type of poor basketball display is what initiates the discussion about the root of it all. The focus instantly shifted away from the series itself back to who is to blame.

“Too cool,” Shaquille O’Neal described Joe Johnson on “Inside the NBA” after that game.

Shaq was adamant, calling out Johnson as the reason why the Hawks got dismantled. Charles Barkley and Kenny Smith agreed with his assessment. From a former superstar standpoint, the easiest way to judge is to criticize the team’s best player. The cliché is that the star receives all the credit when their team wins, and all the fault when they lose. Shaq can immediately relate to this standard because he used to be in the same position as Johnson. This logic however, isn’t applicable in this case and is narrow-minded on Shaq’s part. It completely omits the larger issues involved.

Joe Johnson shouldn’t be considered the cause behind the Hawks’ playoff demise. He’s the least of their problems, really. Because of his laidback attitude and the six year, $119 million contract he signed during the superstar free agent class of 2010, it is almost common nature to point the figure at him. But Johnson has performed as well as several of his current contemporaries. And this reality is one measure to gauge his overall impact – or rather what should be reasonable expectations.

Out of the shooting guards in this year’s postseason, Johnson is easily the third-best player of the group. Only Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade are better and still in their respective prime. Ray Allen and Manu Ginobili are more accomplished, but a fraction of their former selves. James Harden appears to have arrived after his close-out performance against Dallas, while Paul George hasn’t quite figured it all out just yet.

Johnson’s recent playoff numbers did leave more to be desired: 17.2 PPG, 37.3 percent from the field, and 25 percent from downtown. Nevertheless, Johnson’s elite size (6-8 and 240 pounds) and natural smoothness to his game makes him a matchup nightmare. He can post any cat up — unlike LeBron — or the shoot the jumper in their mug consistently in the clutch — unlike LeBron. Whenever he had Avery Bradley or Paul Pierce in the restricted area, he was money the whole series. Johnson shot 69 percent (11-for-16) versus Bradley and 61 percent (11-for-18) with Pierce on him, per NBA.com’s StatsCube. The Celtics didn’t have an answer for him when he was that close to the bucket.

Conversely, these same qualities are shared by another fellow superstar who now also shares his former coach. His team was largely dependent on his scoring prowess and got ousted in the first round by another defensively-stalwart squad: Carmelo Anthony.

‘Melo was also a beast down on the block. It didn’t matter if Shane Battier or King James was checking him. He was killing both of them from point blank distance. According to StatsCube, he shot 50 percent (12-for-24) and 54 percent (21-for-39) against them, respectively, and in spite of his dominance from this spot, Mike Woodson lacked the offensive ingenuity to reliably get him the rock there and simultaneously incorporate the rest of their teammates in the process. It went from Iso-Joe in Hotlanta to Iso-‘Melo in The Big Apple. The emphasis on one player to control the ball for long stretches isn’t conducive to playoff success. Anthony averaged 27.8 points versus the Heat, but his shooting percentages (41.9 field-goal percentage and 22.2 from three) were just as poor as Johnson’s. Both the Hawks and Knicks are going fishin’ and were unceremoniously dismissed from the postseason yet again.

Yet, while there are parallels between their games and lackluster playoff accomplishments, it is the coaching connection that sheds light on the surface of the real problems facing Joe Johnson and the Hawks.

The irony of Shaq dissing Johnson this time around, however, is that the previous time he did so, he was actually on to something that’s now relevant.

“I love Joe Johnson and I hope he doesn’t get mad at me, but he’s not a $20 million a year guy. Business-wise, Atlanta isn’t making that much money. But if you are going to offer a kid a lot of money, he’s going to take it. I think we need a system that protects the owners from each other,” said O’Neal to The Times-Picayune last summer.

“In this economy, if you upset some people now, they’re not going to buy any tickets. Guys (owners) have to be responsible for the business they conduct,” continued Shaq.

The Hawks’ troubles do not stem from Johnson’s personality. That’s irrelevant. There’s always a scarcity in top-tier talent and the demand is always high, driving the market value for a player of his caliber. But the latter points on ownership are what should resonate. And while Shaq possesses the qualities of a potential owner, he should’ve recognized that their underlying concerns derive from those calling the shots, not Johnson as their best player.

As is the case with any great organization, management distills the leadership and culture that filters down to all of their employees. Yes, the NBA is very much a player’s league. But the infrastructure and environment needs to be in place in order to accomplish goals to begin with. Ownership has to make accountability and winning a priority through expressing it with the media and entrusting the right people into positions of authority. They are the ultimate decision-makers. So if they aren’t proactive and making personnel moves based on the team’s dynamic, the morale of complacency becomes acceptable and expected. How can anyone expect the Hawks to reach their potential when they haven’t been placed in the best possible opportunity to do it?

During the Joe Johnson era, the Hawks have fielded a core around him of Al Horford, J-Smoove and the budding Jeff Teague. Their regular season records have improved each year since 2005, sans the latest two: 26, 30, 37, 47, 53, 44, and 40 wins. They have made the playoffs the last five years, and haven’t gotten past the second round. For his part, Johnson has been named an All-Star by the coaches each of his six seasons as a Hawk, which speaks to how he is viewed and respected by those who gameplan against him. Even without a legit center and better role players, there’s no reason why the Hawks haven’t reached the Eastern Conference Finals. As the Celtics have aged, the Hawks have let the Pacers emerge as another threat to the Heat outside of the Bulls. They have stayed in a perpetual state of purgatory.

The Hawks have remained content for far too long. The core was established and capable of making real noise deep into the playoffs, but ownership decided to stick with Woodson as the coach for six seasons. While he increased their win totals steadily, his defensive schemes and simple offensive tactics were not good enough to propel the Hawks past the conference semi-finals. The onus lies on management. A radical coaching change was in order some time ago. When they hired Larry Drew in 2010, this move screamed mediocrity louder than a Gucci Mane album.

They failed to grasp the cultural vibe amongst the players. The owners should’ve picked up that distinction and brought in a coach with real credentials and swagger to light a fire under this chilled crew. I’m sorry, but Woodson looks like a long lost twin brother of Mike Brown. And Drew should’ve been sent packing back to Cali to join his son, Larry Drew II.

The one man, though, that would’ve changed the present realities was Alex Meruelo. He was handed the mike to speak but not the keys.

One of the most overlooked storylines this past offseason was Meruelo’s pending approval of coppin’ the Atlanta Hawks. Beyond the lockout news, the hierarchy of ownership dealings was in this order: the New Orleans Hornets, Sacramento Kings, Philadelphia 76ers, and then the Hawks. Perhaps it was because the Atlanta fan base is rather indifferent, but this situation needed more coverage than it garnered. He was on the cusp of becoming the first Hispanic-American owner in the NBA. And in a city where transplants virtually dominate the scene, it would’ve taken one to somehow unite these people with Atlantians to support the team at The Highlight Factory.

In the brief news conference to announce the potential deal, he brought a glimmer of optimism and desire to this moribund franchise.

“I can’t promise you a championship tomorrow, but I can promise you that I will never give up,” Meruelo said at the time.

However, as quickly as his hopes rose into the public’s radar, they were shattered.

Less than three months after the potential move was first reported, it was revealed the league “isn’t sure Meruelo has the wherewithal to buy and run the team in the way an NBA needs to be run,” according to Mark Bradley of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Whatever the details behind this rebuffed deal were, it remains unclear why this happened and whether the league did their due diligence and took the necessary time to make a prudent decision. This verdict’s ripple effects have and will continue to impact the future health and growth of the Hawks.

“The Atlanta Hawks are no longer for sale. We’re excited to remain as owners of the Hawks and are committed to building on our string of four straight playoff appearances,” stated Bruce Levenson in a team-issued statement soon thereafter.

Yeah, “build on four straight playoff appearances.” These owners have shown “commitment” to nothing more than being average. On the bench, they promoted a coach who has the same persona as his players. On the court, they signed cats that 29 other teams think are out the league: Jerry Stackhouse, Erick Dampier and T-Mac. That’s the level of “commitment” the Hawks’ management believes in.

They must not know the Hawks have the second-longest championship drought (53 seasons, trailing the Sacramento Kings by seven years) in NBA history. The last time they won it all they resided in St. Louis… in 1958.

And rather than casting the blame on the shoulders of Joe Johnson as if he represents Joe Camel, Shaq and everyone else should look no further than the one cat that truly embodies what the Hawks have been and continue to be: Marvin Williams.

Or as The King himself T.I. once said in the “Live Your Life” joint:

“So live your life, hey
You steady chasin’ that paper
Just live your life, oh
Ain’t got no time for no haters.”

What does Atlanta need to do this summer? Blow it up or try it with this same core again?

Follow Freddy on Twitter at @RealFreddyMack.

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