Top 50: Joe Johnson, no. 20
The definitive ranking of the NBA’s best players.
It’s impossible for a Hawks fan to understate the importance of Joe Johnson. Simply: Dude IS the Hawks. Josh Smith is nice, Marvin Williams and Al Horford have improved, Bibby can still knock down jumpers, but everything revolves around Joe Johnson. Even the franchise. Especially the Franchise.
Don’t forget, it was just four years ago that then-Hawks GM Billy Knight, with free agent dough burning a hole in his pockets, decided to splash his cash on JJ, a restricted free agent with the Suns. BK was so determined not to miss out on Joe that he was willing to work a sign-and-trade with Phoenix, giving them a couple of first-rounders and Boris Diaw. This made one of the owners so angry that he ended up suing all the rest of the owners (and giving us one of the greatest photos of all-time). This mess dragged on for four years, until recently a judge ruled in favor of the remaining Hawks owners.
That entire time, while Judge Wapner tried to figure out a ruling, we had Joe Johnson, who has proven himself over and over again as being completely worth the trouble. Without Joe, the Hawks aren’t the fourth-best team in the Eastern Conference. Simple.
It’s hard to remember, but at the time, signing Joe to a huge contract was considered a questionable move by the Hawks. Joe was coming off a nice season in Phoenix, but the Suns didn’t want to pay him, and most people thought Joe was largely a product of the Suns’ system. As Josh Smith once told me: “I didn’t know how good Joe was until he came on the team. Then I was like, I don’t care what nobody says, this dude is worth whatever money they paid him.”
Joe’s stats as a Hawk are tremendous: He’s played 82, 82 and 79 games over the last four years. He was sixth, second, second and third in the NBA in minutes. He has totaled more points and more assists than any other player on the Hawks each of the last four seasons. He’s averaged at least 20 points per game every season as a Hawk. The last three seasons, the coaches in the Eastern Conference have selected Joe Johnson as an All-Star.
The first play of every game, the Hawks run a pin-down for Joe. Like clockwork. At the end of every game, the ball is always in Joe’s hands. He’s rarely flashy, just steady. He’ll cross you over, pull up and drain the J. Whenever the ball leaves his hands to go to a teammate, it’s a little unsettling.
Is Joe Johnson the 20th best player in the NBA? At least. He’s the best player on one of the 8 best teams in the NBA. Without Joe Johnson, the Hawks aren’t what they are right now. For better and for worse. It is what it is.
Some of you may disagree. But I’ll disagree with you. And I’m right.
After Joe’s first season in Atlanta, I asked Mike Woodson about JJ. “He’s been blessed,” Woodson said. “Surely you have to give him credit because he works on his game — this guy is a gym rat — but he’s been blessed. Hell, I was a player in the League; all I could do was score the ball. If I could rebound, defend and do all the things he does? At 6-7? Well, it’s beautiful to watch.”
I know, Coach. I know.
• Rankings are based solely on projected ’09-10 performance.
• Contributors to this list include: Jake Appleman, Brett Ballantini, Russ Bengtson, Toney Blare, Shannon Booher, Myles Brown, Franklyn Calle, Gregory Dole, Emry DowningHall, Jonathan Evans, Adam Fleischer, Jeff Fox, Sherman Johnson, Aaron Kaplowitz, John Krolik, Holly MacKenzie, Ryne Nelson, Chris O’Leary, Ben Osborne, Alan Paul, Susan Price, Sam Rubenstein, Khalid Salaam, Kye Stephenson, Adam Sweeney, Vincent Thomas, Tzvi Twersky, Justin Walsh, Joey Whelan, Eric Woodyard, and Nima Zarrabi.
• Want more of the SLAMonline Top 50? Check out the archive.