The Hawks were faced with one of professional sport's greatest quagmires this summer: kill your cap to maintain a good (but not great) team, or lose your best player in the hopes that you can do better down the road. While many have and will continue to kill the Hawks for inking Joe Johnson to a fresh $124-million deal, it would have been difficult to sell the alternative on the public.
Remember, the Hawks had missed the Playoffs eight straight times years prior to 2008. As much as Johnson is a poor-man's superstar, he his arrival was the catalyst for the Hawks rejuvenation. Plus, the Knicks proved this summer that they were willing to open up their wallets for All-Star players, regardless of their overall pedigree. If the Hawks lost Johnson to the Knicks, or Chicago or whomever, they would be seen as losers, plain and simple. If another team proved willing to pay Johnson big dollars to relocate, the Hawks (who could offer more than any other outfit) would have a hard time explaining why they chose not to sweeten their offer. Middle-of-the-road may be the best Johnson can take the Hawks to, since they've only averaged 38.6 wins during his tenure, but the club has improved every regular season since he arrived and cascading back to 13-win territory like they did the year before Johnson arrived would be a cruel turn after so much positivity of late.
Sure, people will argue that Jamal Crawford could have slid into his starting spot and only lost a little bit of ground, but that's also ignoring a bit of history. Crawford had never been to the Playoffs before this season, and while he excelled a hired gun off of the bench, he's never shown the efficiency or discipline needed to be a number-one option on a winning team. His 45-38-86 shooting averages, too, were all well above his career averages, suggesting that last year was more of a career outlier for Crawford rather than the new norm.
Also, without Johnson around, Josh Smith would have become the team's de facto star, and if people thought he was hard to coach before, just imagine what he would have been like as the sole face of the franchise.
Still, the reverse side of this argument has serious merit, too, which is why people can't and won't give up on bashing this signing. By committing so much money to Johnson over the course of the next six years the team has basically hamstrung themselves financially for that same duration. Not only that, but with starting centre Al Horford in line for a lucrative extension, and with Smith already possessing a $12-million-per-year pact, it remains to be seen if the club can even afford to keep this good (but not great) nucleus together long-term, anyway. The team already looks like they may have to sacrifice Crawford for financial to keep the rest of the core together, so how long will it be before others start seeing pitiless hand of Atlanta's luxury tax bill?
It's easy to criticize Atlanta for their decision this summer, just as it would have been easy to criticize the alternative. Right now, the alternative has become something of a trendy ‘what if' scenario for people to play around with, because it represents limitless opportunities for the imagination rather than the sterilizing smack of reality Johnson's extension instead provides. Let's be frank, though; this team was basically screwed either way. They pushed farther than most expected with this assemblage of talent, they knew they didn't have the resources to make a big move if they let Johnson walk, and so they maintained the status quo and brought in a new coach that they hope can propel the team out of the second round of the Playoffs (or at least prevent yet another second round sweep). Rookie head coach Larry Drew has been vocal about wanting to implement more of a motion offense to avoid the stagnation that often plagued the club in recent years and made them an easy target for well-prepared defenses (they dropped from third in the league in offensive efficiency in the regular season down to eleventh in the post-season). However, as noble as Drew's intentions may be, the team may not employ the kind of players that can be persuaded to work the kind of system that requires non-stop movement, screening and passing when they could simply isolate instead. That's Johnson's forte after all, and ownership is going to want to squeeze every penny of value from that extravagant contract.
PROBABLE STARTING LINEUP
PG – Mike Bibby
This is as temporary a starting spot as there is in the NBA right now, and by the time the regular season tips off Bibby may already be a bench player in favor of second-year guard, Jeff Teague. Bibby's production took a career-altering dip last season, as his PER dropped to it's lowest value (12.7) of his entire career, while Teague had a nice (albeit very small) run as a starter, going for 12.7-points and 7.3 assists-per-game in three non-consecutive games in the back-third of the season. More than that, though, Teague represents what little newness this team can inject into its core in an attempt to hit higher heights with the same nucleus of players. If he can breakout in year two, it would be a huge benefit to the Hawks.
SG – Joe Johnson
The warts are pretty well discussed at this point: he's a low-percentage player that sees his production dip in the post-season and he's turning 30 next summer. Fine. Will he be a burden to the Hawks cap towards the end of his contract? Almost assuredly, and the degree to which may be made all the more severe if the new Collective Bargaining Agreement further restricts team's financial flexibility. With all of that said, though, Johnson is still the best player on this team, he's top-five in the shooting guard class in today's NBA and when he's on he can win a game on his own. He's not a superstar and he'll never be able to impact that game as a superstar would, which is why his contract is so disproportionate to his abilities, but he was getting a plus-one-hundred-million-dollar deal this summer from someone, and the fact is the Hawks felt they couldn't afford for him to get it from someone else. It was at once a move they had to make this summer and a move they'll regret each summer thereafter.
SF – Marvin Williams
Ah, the forgotten Hawk. Williams actually had a regression year last season, at least statistically speaking. His PER dropped from 16.0 down to 13.0, his scoring fell down to 10.1 points-per-game and he saw a reduction in playing time as Woodson opted to give some of his minutes to Crawford and Mo Evans. This year, coach Drew is exploring playing Horford more at the four spot, which will mean that Josh Smith will spend more time lining up at the three, which means that Williams could be in for an even further reduction in minutes unless he is able to demonstrate to his coach why he should be gifted with more playing time than most feel he's warranted. He's been given a starting role on the Hawks since day one and he hasn't been able to turn that opportunity into anything more than a stable and unspectacular five-year career. If the Hawks do feel they need to shake up some part of their roster this season, Williams will be on the short-list of players deemed expendable if he continues on his downward slide.
PF – Josh Smith
0.1. That stat symbolizes everything one needs to know about Smith's breakthrough season last year. That was the number of three-pointers Smith launched per-game last year during the regular season, for a total of seven overall in 81 games. The number was less relevant than the impression that number lent to Smith's credibility throughout the league. All of a sudden people were taking him seriously as a player that understood his role on his team and as a player that had attained a level of maturity many were wondering if he would ever reach. Smith is now going into his seventh NBA season, yet he hasn't even turned 25. He has even more room to mature and refine his game if he is willing to do so, but the 1.8 threes he launched per-game in the Playoffs last year make one wonder if he's actually ready to take that step forward. In his favor is that he actually hit 33% of those Playoff threes, so for now let's assume that he's just willing to improve on the weak areas of his game as he continues his rise to stardom until he gives us a reason to believe otherwise.
C – Al Horford
People will contend that Joe Johnson was the player that ultimately killed the Atlanta Hawks' salary cap situation, but it's going to be Horford that actually drives the knife through it. Either this summer or next summer the Hawks are going to have to extend his deal (he's way too good to think about doing anything else) and he could be looking at a raise of $5-to-6-million per-year over the $5.4-million he'll make this season. He may be seen as a utility man for the Hawks, but his ability to fill any hole they need him to fill is a huge reason why the club rose to respectability after drafting him three years ago. As Denver has found out recently, sometimes a group of talented players can only take you so far before the mix starts to backslide. Horford deserves whatever raise the club is going to give him, but when he signs for it he'll be unwittingly committing himself to years of mediocrity as a member of this Hawks ballclub.