The unwitting assassin
Tell me, o ribald reader, is this face worth the fate of an entire franchise? Is this the Atlanta Hawks' fair Helen for the ages?
(taken from this woman's BlackPlanet.com page, posted here only because she seems to lead an intriguing life made up largely of Suns players, political consciousness, and African-American gays and lesbians)
Heading into the playoffs, Joe Johnson may have been the fourth best player on the Suns. Then, as I've written before, came the injury. Without Johnson, the Suns stumbled; ergo, it was Johnson who came after Nash and Amare, since his absence=team failure. It looked like the man from Little Rock was set to cash in over the summer, with teams now viewing him as a legit point guard with a slinky scorer's will and deadly three-point range. Apparently, everyone had forgotten how Johnson, now heading into his fifth year, performed when he was asked to be just that in the second half of 2003-2004, once Marbury had been shipped off (did the team had any idea what was coming the next season? We've certainly been led, at least by the media, to believe that ownership knew great things were on the horizon. In retrospect, the most flush, prophetic cellar-dwelling in NBA history). Johnson at his best will give you 20/5/5, capable of handling the ball but hardly a floor general, and a threat to take over about every other game. A poor man's Penny might sound a little harsh, but it's just realistic. Certainly better a poor man's Penny than
Then came The Trade. The Suns, not wanting to be mired in salary cap problems and shackled by a lack of depth, decide that twelve mill a year is too much for a complemntary player. The Hawks, desperate for a) some star power b) someone to pass the ball to all their young wings who won't be wasting a spot in the starting line-up decide that Johnson is the answer to their prayers, figure that they'll have to overpay for any free agents they sign in the immediate future, and might as well break the bank on Johnson. Factor in some supposed trouble in paradise involving Amare and JJ (given how indispensable Amare is to the entire league at the moment, as well as his "great kid, hard worker" rep, and anyone not named LeBron or KG is going to end up on the losing end of that PR war), and sending Johnson to the Hawks for something rather than nothing ain't so bad. They've chosen to build around a game plan of Nash working with a frontcourt of Amare, Marion, and Kurt Thomas. With Jim Jackson ready to step in at the 2, all you really need is for either that Brazilian guy or Boris Diaw to contribute a little, and the Suns should be just as competitive as they were last year, with cap to spare. And, there's reason to believe that this team wouldn't have been nearly as much of a league-wide shockwave the second time around; look at the playoffs, where the Spurs and Mavs proved that there's a fairly practical way to clog up their frenetic offense.
But with a coup underway in Atlanta, suddenly Johnson might as well be a reigning MVP, at least to some. I'll spare you the details of this behind-the-scenes drama, since I don't really understand them myself. Suffice to say that the Joey Johnson signing is threatening to rot this team's leadership from the inside out. There are lawyers involved, honorific titles, restraining orders, and some guy that for some reason is always described as being from Boston. I wondered a few weeks back if any player was as much of an issue for ownership as Darko was to Detroit. Johnson may have upped the ante and then some—before even officially becoming a member of the team. You can argue that this conflict was brewing long before Joey Johnson even flashed across their free agency radar, or that this "NBA Governor" who doesn't want to pay up is just a cheap bastard. Though really, it all comes down to the ever-heightening disparity between how good some people think he'll be (Simmons called him one of the twenty-five best in the league) and what a more reasonable person thinks of his game. This isn't tulip-like collective hysteria; it's a hard-and-fast disagreement that basketball minds have four years worth of pro experience to work with as evidence. And while this is the kind of insider-y crap that a blog like FreeDarko might congratulate itself on living and breathing, it's usually smoothed over in the real world by the market, institutional consensus, a need to move on and get ready to play ball.
But in Atlanta, the team is in essence being torn apart by a message board debate taking place in all caps.