Friday, May 7, 2010

Atlanta at Orlando, Game 2, a look at Joe Johnson

This is not meant to be demeaning or demoralizing. While he will never read this post, I actually hope it serves to invigorate, to stir to anger, and then focus. But the truth is clear, and it must be known.

You absolutely can not win an NBA championship with Joe Johnson as your best player. I am hedging on whether you can win with him as your second-best. Here is why.

Joe got his start in Phoenix with the go-go Suns, a fun team that shared the ball and was offensive dynamite. He had the good fortune to play with Steve Nash for a few years, and like many other players (Quentin Richardson, Boris Diaw, Shawn Marion), cashed in on their collective success. They even had playoff success, enduring a series of bad calls, and terrible injuries (broken face, anyone?), and heartbreaking losses in the postseason.

At the end of it, all of them cashed in: Quentin to New York, Diaw back to Phoenix and now on to Charlotte, Marion off to Miami, and Joe ending up in Atlanta. Their success was a by-product of their team's success, and their team's success was a by-product of Nash. But what these players received crisp passes from their point guard, none received the real education that playing with a superstar could provide.

Steve Nash is an odd fellow to be playing in the NBA. His story has been told over and again, how a small-college, no athleticism white boy from Canada could become the best player in the NBA, twice. He is a nice guy, a guy that makes funny commercials, a guy that heads basketballs to teammates in the dunk contest ( He is a fun-loving, free-wheeling playmaker that could just as soon dish 20 dimes as score 20 points.

But over the years, Nash has changed. Bill Simmons writes about it in The Book of Basketball.
Somewhere down the line, Nash went from nice to cold. You can see it in the playoffs, with the way he goes after balls, the way he attacks the rim, he way he talks to the refs, the way he talks to his team. The years of failure have worn on him and a competitive fire has slowly burned into a blaze inside his soul. He has discovered survivability. He is a survivor. He has discovered what it takes to win, that cruel, killer instinct you have to develop for the game, that makes his playoff play a spectre to behold. In short, he matches up to the Jordans, the Birds, the Duncans, the O'neals as a great playoff competitor.

What does this have to do with Quentin, Boris, Shawn, and Joe? All four filled their stat sheets with the fruits of Nash's genius, but none filled their brains with what it takes to win. All four seemed to only see good Nash, the fun Nash, but not the nasty opponent who will scratch and claw and do what it takes to win. After they left, three have digressed: Quentin and Boris are nothing more than bench players on a contender, Shawn could potentially start as a defensive stopper and little else. Joe is good, but Joe was always supposed to be good. Perhaps that's why his tale is the saddest of all.

In his fifth year with the Atlanta Hawks, Joe still puts up gaudy stats: 21.3 points on 18.2 shots, 4.6 rebounds, 4.9 assists, a steal, and only 1.9 turns while shooting 46/32/87. He gets his points, gets his teammates involved, is what you would see from a stats perspective and from a number-of-possessions dominated perspective as a team leader. But he is no leader, or at least, no leader like Nash.

I first saw it in the Milwaukee series. Joe had a tendency to disappear as the game wore on. There was a fantastic rally in game 4 that ultimately came short, but you look at his other games, and you see a remarkable absence in the 4th quarter, the quarter when leaders, competitors take over. It seems like in the wins, all the buzz was about other players, Jamaal Crawford in particular. Crawford and Joe play similar positions. Both need the ball in their hands. And for some reason, Crawford is the headline.

I know chemistry is important. But so is leadership. So is having a superstar. And that is what Joe is not. If he were a superstar, he would get sick of all this Crawford crap and DEMAND THE BALL. In the last two minutes of the game, he would start every possession. The Hawks could call timeout with a few minutes left in a close game, and he would say: "I got this: everyone get on my back, space the floor, give me one good pick and get ready to either rebound or shoot the open 3." Who cares if they catch on? The great thing about superstars is knowing what they will do and not being able to stop it. LeBron has it. Duncan has it. Rip Hamilton had it. What do you think Byron Russell was thinking on that last play in '98? While Jordan was still dribbling, he was thinking: "oh crap, we just lost the game."

Last night's Hawks/Magic game is the perfect example. I'm going to compare Joe with his Orlando counterpart, Vince Carter, another supremely gifted player who does not always have his head in the game. In the first half, Joe played well as Vince went 1-4 from the field. In the third quarter, Vince heats up, and then totally destroys Joe in the fourth. But perhaps more important than shots made/missed are the way they get the shots. In the first half, Joe had two shots at the rim, one that missed, and shot four more times within the free-throw line on both sides. Vince had his own point-blank miss, and scored on a soft shot from the block. In the third, Joe is nothing but top of the key, long twos, while Vince is at the rim, inside the elbow, and hitting from range. In the fourth, Joe makes a free-throw line shot, misses a contested shot in the lane, and misses two 3's, while Vince scores at the rim, from the right block, and from distance.

By the end of the game, Vince was huge and Joe had performed another textbook disappearance, ending up as the 3rd scorer on his team. Second for the Hawks? Jamaal Crawford.

All this being said, I love Joe. I think he's a great player. You can never leave him alone on offense, and he finds ways to get his teammates involved, knowing that they are all good finishers. But he has shown through a decade of NBA experience that he is the prototypical second banana. He needs a superstar around him, a Nash with that cuthroat determination to win. Thing is, looking at a team like Orlando, I don't know how good they would be with Joe instead of Vince. I mean, Dwight is their best player, but where do the chips fall from there? Can you win with Joe as your second-best? Especially if he is getting paid max money? I don't know. I hope for Joe, that you can. But I really don't know.

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