Let’s play word association.
I say: “Joe Johnson.”
You say: “Seven-time All-Star.”
Johnson had some great moments as a Hawks guard. But he also was so closely associated with the franchise’s general dysfunction during his tenure, in part because of a max-pay/max-stupid $124 million contract, that former general manager Danny Ferry’s first move of his makeover was to find a willing trade partner/sucker so he could get rid of him. And there were the Brooklyn Nets and their owner, Mikhail Prokhorov, who had rubles to burn.
“When you have a new GM and he decides I’m the first player he’s going to start with, I’m like: OK, go ahead. Move me. Get me on out of here. You don’t need to have me around if you don’t want me,” Johnson told me last year when he looked back on the 2012 trade.
The Hawks aren’t looking to build now. They’re struggling and they’re desperate and they’re looking for a fix in the most amusing of directions: right at Joe Johnson.
One team’s garbage is another team’s … wait, same team. He’s not garbage anymore?
When asked about Joe Johnson on Thursday, Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer did the verbal tampering tap dance and said, “As far as I know, he’s still playing for the Brooklyn Nets.”
That was before Johnson officially hit the waiver wire when the Nets bought out the final year of his cartoonish contract. Johnson will clear 48-hour waivers and officially become a free agent at 5 p.m. Saturday, at which point he’ll likely choose between the Hawks or a team seemingly closer to an NBA title (Cleveland, Oklahoma City, Toronto, Boston).
The Hawks won’t tell you this, but a person in the know tells me they badly wanted center/power forward Anderson Varejao when he was released by Cleveland. They needed a large body to replace Tiago Splitter. But Varejao picked Golden State because the Warriors are favorites to win another title and the Hawks are sinking in the Eastern Conference like they have weights tied to their ankles. Johnson has ties to Atlanta, but could he say no to LeBron James and Cleveland?
I know: “Iso Joe” in Budenholzer’s pace-and-space offense?
Budenholzer in practice: “OK, Joe. Remember, three passes before we shoot.”
(World slaps forehead.)
At various points when he didn’t want to say anything Thursday, Budenholzer offered, “You need good players,” and, “I don’t think you can have enough good shooters on the court.” Take from that what you will.
Any lingering “Joe baggage” notwithstanding, this might not be the worst idea in the world. The Hawks are struggling on offense, particularly on the wings with Kent Bazemore and Kyle Korver. Johnson is 34 and obviously has seen his skills erode, but he can still shoot a little (37.1 percent on 3-point attempts this season, 40.6 percent overall from the floor). They also likely would have to pay him only a pro-rated portion of the 10-plus-year NBA veteran minimum ($1.499 million), not the remainder of his Nets’ contract (just under $25 million this season).
This is the same former Hawk who wanted to The Guy, who never could play enough minutes, who never could take enough shots, who sulked at times. He didn’t embrace all that went with the star player’s role (leadership, team spokesman, etc.). Is Johnson suddenly going to be content with being a minor cog and off stage?
The Hawks have been thinking about this move for a while. They went to Al Horford early in the week to get some feedback about Johnson.
“What I can say about Joe is he always was a great teammate,” Horford said. “He’s a good guy, a good veteran player.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen, but yeah: I just told them he’s a great guy, great guy in the locker room. He’s somebody who I feel I can trust.”
The Braves bring back Jeff Francouer. The Hawks want to bring back Joe Johnson. The Falcons need a center. Hey, what’s Jeff Van Note doing these days?
Budenholzer is not looking to put the band back together (although I’m sure Josh Smith and Marvin Williams are available). But he’s desperate for a fix because the experiment of Bazemore as a starter is failing and Korver’s showing his age and this team needs a spark.
Signing Johnson could seriously backfire if he doesn’t blend in Budenholzer’s system. Then again, the Hawks have lost five out of their past six games and they’re down to seventh place in the East, two games ahead of ninth-place Detroit.
Desperate team. Desperate measures. Not the potential homecoming story anybody expected.
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.