Joe Johnson Adjusts Game to Fit New Role
"Be honest: Do you really think you are worth $120 million?'' Atlanta Journal-Constitution beat writer Michael Cunningham tweeted about what Clipper Darrell yelled Sunday at the Hawks guard, whose new six-year contract actually is worth $123 million.
On that day, Johnson did look a lot more worth the money than he has shown much of the season. He scored 29 points in Atlanta's 107-98 win.
Last season, Johnson had to listen to talk regularly about what he might do as a free agent in the summer of 2010. Now that he's re-signed, he must hear claims by naysayers he's overpaid.
Johnson's scoring average is down this season from 21.3 to 17.6 and his shooting percentage has plummeted from 45.8 to 39.9. His assists average, though, is up from 4.9 to 5.7 and Hawks general manager Rick Sund can't stop lauding Johnson for his defensive abilities.
"Not at all,'' Johnson said in an interview with FanHouse about whether it's any sort of burden living up to his contract. "I plan a great six years (on the deal) here. So I don't think it was an odd thing. We just got to keep doing what we've been doing, and we're trying to build on it.''
Even if Johnson isn't your classic maximum-contract kind of player, the Hawks didn't have much of a choice last summer. Had they not offered a maximum deal, there were enough teams with cap money that would have thrown huge dollars his way. Try New York, New Jersey and Chicago, all losers in the LeBron James sweepstakes.
And some of Johnson's offensive struggles this season can be excused since he hasn't been fully healthy. Johnson last month underwent arthroscopic surgery to remove loose bodies from his right (shooting) elbow, and missed nine games.
Johnson said his elbow first started bothering him last season when it "just locked up every now and then'' and he "had no clue as to what it was.'' The pain became unbearable earlier this season, and the Hawks announced Dec. 1 Johnson would undergo surgery and be out four to six weeks.
Well, Johnson was back to play just 16 days later. It's hard to complain too much about a guy who does that.
"The treatment was going real well, and I was out there and getting shots up that felt pretty good,'' Johnson said of being able to return so quickly. "Then Jamal Crawford (a Hawks swingman who missed five December games with a back injury) went down. Me and him are basically the two scorers on this team, so I wanted to kind of give the guys some type of (relief) knowing that I'm coming back a month before schedule. So I think it was just trying to build a good morale around the team.''
Since Johnson has returned, the Hawks are 6-3. But Johnson, while averaging 18.8 points, has shot just 38.2 percent during the period.
"It's getting better, but it's not 100 percent,'' Johnson said of his elbow. "I'm getting treatment every day and trying to strengthen it and get it back straight... (The shooting troubles have been) unfortunate. But I'll get it back strong. I'll be all right.''
Johnson said his scoring decrease also has been a result of learning the new offense of Hawks coach Larry Drew, an assistant last season under Mike Woodson before the latter's contract wasn't renewed. Drew has been preaching a more balanced attack, one reason Crawford's average is down from 18.0 points per game last season to 15.0 and leading to the Hawks having six players averaging between 10.1 points and Johnson's team-high 17.6.
"I'm just still trying to get familiar with the offensive system that we got going now,'' Johnson said. "The offense is pretty much equal opportunity. It doesn't go through me, it doesn't go through Josh (Smith, a forward averaging 16.5 points). It doesn't go through Al (Horford, a center averaging 16.5). The first guy who is open takes the first very good shot. That's just the way it is.''
The Hawks are 22-14 under the new system despite injuries to Johnson, Crawford and starting forward Marvin Williams, who has missed the past two games and will miss at least two more with a back injury. So nobody's complaining too much.
Drew has no major complaints about Johnson, 29. Despite his stats being down, he believes Johnson has become more versatile.
"He's accepted what we do,'' Drew said. "We don't isolate him as much as we've done in the past. What he's done is become more of an all-around player because now he's passing the ball. He's getting the ball to open guys and he's accepting double teams and getting rid of the ball. That just makes us a better ballclub when he does that. His numbers are down but... he's starting to accept the way we play.''
Hawks officials also believe Johnson's defense has improved. Sund raved about how his 6-foot-7 shooting guard played a key role in holding Golden State guard Monta Ellis, the NBA's third-leading scorer with a 25.3 average, to 12 points in a game last week on 4-of-13 shooting.
"He's one of the most underrated defenders in the league,'' Sund said of Johnson. "He's got the ability to guard (point guards, shooting guards and small forwards). He's one of the best defenders in the league. He's big, he's stroing and he's quick.''
And he's still a Hawk. There were some anxious moments throughout last season that Johnson might end up bolting Atlanta after rejecting a contract extension prior to the campaign.
Nervousness wasn't helped when the Hawks were embarrassed 4-0 by Orlando in the Eastern Conference semifinals last spring and Woodson was let go. But Johnson did re-sign after the Hawks, perhaps even going through the seat cushions at Philips Arena, threw every dollar they could at him.
"I weighed my options,'' Johnson said. "I took advantage of the summer but no team I thought was better suited for me than (Atlanta)... We still got unfinished business. We got to the second round for two (straight) years and just pretty much got embarrassed (having been swept 4-0 by Cleveland in a 2009 East semifinal). So (Johnson wants to get) beyond that. So that was the main thing (in re-signing).''
Johnson is making $16.324 million this season, which is more than any of top free agents from last summer who landed in Miami are pulling down. James and Chris Bosh are both getting $14.5 million and Dwyane Wade $14.2 million.
Despite all the money he's earning, Johnson's streak of having played in four straight All-Star Game figures to come to an end next month. He's way back in the fan voting and will be hard pressed to be selected as a reserve even though the East has little star depth at guard.
"I'd be lying if I didn't say that I've enjoyed every last minute of them,'' Johnson said of his All-Star appearances. "It's a privilege and an an honor to make it. And, if I did it miss it (this season), I wouldn't be mad by no stretch. Just try to finish up the season strong and look forward to next year.''
Even if he misses the Feb. 20 game in Los Angeles, Johnson will have plenty of opportunities to get back to the All-Star Game with Atlanta. His contract runs for a long time.
Chris Tomasson can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @christomasson