The trade of Joe Johnson for Boris Diaw and 2 first round picks was recently concluded by the Hawks and Suns, after being initially held up. Steve Belkin, a member of the Hawks ownership group, did not want to make the trade, and attempted to stop it. However, the other owners wanted the trade and pushed Belkin out of his ownership role in order to get it done. Despite this, Belkin’s reservations about the trade may have been justified. Don’t get me wrong, once the Hawks let word get out about this trade, they had to make it if they wanted to retain any fans at all. You don’t often find a good, young player willing to relocate to possibly the worst franchise in all of basketball. However, I said good, not great.
Joe Johnson averaged 5 rebounds, 3 ½ assists and 17 points per game last year. The year before, he averaged 5 rebounds, 4 ½ assists, and 17 points. These numbers look awfully similar, except for the assists, which went down because of Nash. Is it possible that Joe Johnson has already reached his peak? The Hawks are paying him 70 million dollars over 5 years, or 14 million per year. That’s not the type of money you give a guy who averages 17 points,4 assists, and 5 boards. Richard Hamilton averaged better numbers than that with 19 points, 4 rebounds, and 5 assists per game, and he only makes 9 million dollars per season.
So the Hawks are clearly paying Johnson in the expectation that he is going to get better. This does not seem like an unfair expectation because he is only 24 years old, and if he were a player whose numbers went up in every season, the Hawks would be justified in believing it. But, his numbers only went up once; from the 2002 to 2003 season. Coincidentally, this was the season in which his playing time went up from 27.5 minutes per games to 40 minutes per game. During the 2002 season, he averaged 10 points, 3 rebounds, and 2 ½ assists per game. In the 2003 season, he averaged 5 rebounds, 4 ½ assists, and 17 points per game. However, when you adjust his numbers from the 2002 season to averages per 40 minutes, you can say he averaged 14 points, 4 ½ rebounds, and 4 assists. Contrast this to his 2003 season stats, a season in which he played 40 minutes per game, and you see almost no improvement. So although his stats jumped, it was due to a playing time increase, not due to his skills improving.
So basically what the Hawks have now is a man who, while young, has never shown any improvement in his entire pro career. This means that he may not get any better. He is a good player now, but he will be vastly overpaid if he does not get any better. You also have to look at the mindset of a person who would want to be traded from the Suns, which are a good team where he is the fourth fiddle, to the Hawks, which are a bad team, but one on which he is the top guy. I know he had issues with management in Phoenix over his contract status, but he could have been traded to another team. Plenty of teams would have jumped at the chance to add him. The fact that he chose the Hawks may mean he is an underachiever who simply wants to make his money and coast along, never doing anything special. This could be bad for the Hawks in the long run, as they have a young core who could be influenced by Johnson, and his contract could become a weight on their salary cap.
Although I have been saying Johnson is overpaid and an underachiever this whole article, he does have good qualities. He is a big swingman who can play both guard spots and the small forward spot. He would be an immediate upgrade for the Hawks at the point guard spot where Tyronn Lue was decent, but not good, last year. He would also give the franchise hope, which is more than the Hawks have had for a while. They seem to be in constant rebuilding mode, but Johnson could give them a piece to build around. However, all this is contingent on Johnson’s improvement. If Johnson can get better, this trade will look good for the Hawks. If he doesn’t, the Hawks will end up regretting this deal, as they have with so many other signings.
In order to get Johnson, the Hawks gave up Boris Diaw and 2 lottery picks. Boris Diaw will be a decent backup for the Suns, who have little depth with Kurt Thomas and Jim Jackson/Raja Bell in the starting lineup. He will let the starters get a little bit of rest, something they didn’t have much of last year. Remember, he was a first round pick 2 years ago, so he could be a good player. The trade also includes 2 first round draft picks, which the Hawks, as a rebuilding team, should never have given up. The Suns lost a top playmaker on their team, and didn’t really get anything immediate in return. Diaw will give them depth, but they want to win now, and thus the picks are puzzling. However, the second Joe Johnson said he was disgruntled in Phoenix, he forced Phoenix’s hand, and they had to move him, even if draft picks and a backup piece were all they could get.
The Hawks got Johnson for less than market value, but they are paying him more than market value. This trade leaves the Hawks improved, but the franchise’s future, at least for the next 5 years, is tied to Joe Johnson. If he gets better, the team gets better. If he doesn’t, well then the Hawks will still be the Hawks. Giving up the picks has made it clear that the Hawks intend to win with the core they have now, which is a dicey proposition. I see the Hawks as a 30 win team next year, which is a considerable improvement. As for the Suns, giving up Johnson has left a hole in their lineup. If they can get Michael Finley to fill it, there will be almost no drop-off, and they will be on pace to do as well as last year. If they don’t land Finley, they will have to turn to Raja Bell or Jim Jackson, who are considerably less talented, at least at the offensive end, than Johnson. In this scenario, the Suns would make the playoffs, but with a low seed. This is a trade that had to be made; the Suns had to get rid of a disgruntled potential troublemaker, and the Hawks had to add a young talent who wanted to play in Atlanta.