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Johnson makes plea for help
Hawks' star guard prods management to make big trade
By SEKOU SMITH
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published on: 10/31/07
Joe Johnson is a quiet man by nature. Actions, you see, have always meant more to him than words.
Always have. Always will.
So it was with painstaking care that Johnson chose his words on the subject of his third season as captain and resident star of the Atlanta Hawks.
There was supposed to be more help. Some other big-time free agent. Another up and coming veteran to help do some of the heavy lifting.
Yet when the Hawks open the 2007-08 season tonight against the Dallas Mavericks at Philips Arena, Johnson will take the floor the same way he did on Nov. 2, 2005 in Oakland, his first regular-season game in a Hawks uniform. He will be flanked by an assortment of promising young talents still in the formative stages of their careers.
"I knew it was a rebuilding situation where they had a lot of young guys and they wanted me to come in and help lead them in the right direction," Johnson said. "But at the same time, there were supposed to be some more pieces, some more free agents. They talked about it again this past summer. But as you can see, nothing happened.
"It's been frustrating ... it's hard. We can only do so much as players. But I don't even know what's next. I love the guys we have. This team, we're a tight-knit group. And we've been through all the ups and downs together. But at some point, you just want to see a little relief come along so we can all have a fighting chance to do what we do best and get this team to the playoffs."
That night in Oakland was the first of nine straight losses to start the season for the Hawks, who finished the 2005-06 season just 26-56. A 30-52 season followed, though it included an All-Star nod for Johnson.
Still, some 56 wins and 108 losses after he agreed to become the centerpiece of the Hawks' rebuilding plan, there have been no other comparable additions to the one the Hawks got in the 6-foot-7, 235-pound Johnson, who at 26 is just now heading into the prime of his career.
"He might not have the oversized persona of some of the guys people consider superstars but he's got the game," said New Orleans point guard Chris Paul, a teammate of Johnson's on the U.S. National Team and with Jordan Brand, two elite squads both players were picked for the past two years. "Joe's a silent assassin. He'll stick you for 30 points, nine assists and eight rebounds without saying a single word the entire game. It's crazy how he let's his game do all the talking."
Johnson, who has averaged 20 and 25 points, respectively in his first two seasons with the Hawks, is talking now.
He has to speak now or forever hold his peace, now that he's nearing the halfway point of the five-year, $70 million deal he signed with the Hawks as a restricted free agent with Phoenix in the summer of 2005. A sign-and-trade deal followed as Johnson came to the Hawks for Boris Diaw and draft picks.
Johnson isn't looking for sympathy. He's looking for help. He's looking for answers. He's looking for solutions.
And he's not afraid to admit it.
Never has been. Never will be.
"I believe Joe said it loudly after signing with us that he had to be the first piece and that we had to add other free agents along with him," said Hawks coach Mike Woodson, whom Johnson has grown extremely close to over the past two seasons. "And that hasn't happened so far. So he might have concerns and maybe some reservations, like any guy in his situation would.
"I do know that we have Josh [Smith] and Josh [Childress] and Marvin [Williams]. Their contracts are coming up now and over the next year, so there will have to be some things done to secure their futures if we're going to keep them all. In the big picture, though, I think Joe is exactly right and that we're still going to have to go out and sign some more big name free agents. Unless these young guys turn a major corner this year, which we're all hoping they can, that's still going to have to be a part of our process at some point."
The Hawks have had the necessary resources — high draft picks, expiring contracts, young assets and salary cap space — in each of the past two seasons to be major players in the free agent fireworks that light up every summer.
But all they have to show for it is veteran point guard Speedy Claxton, whose injuries (broken finger, cartilage tear in his knee) limited him to just 42 games last season and will keep him on the inactive list to start this season.
The Hawks were all over the draft rumor mill this past summer, the sexiest story had them getting Johnson's old teammate in Phoenix, Amare Stoudemire, in a three-way trade that the general managers for both teams swear was never on the table.
Hawks general manager Billy Knight said the same things he presented to Johnson during his 45-mintue recruiting pitch two summers ago in a Las Vegas hotel suite are the same things that have come to fruition, albeit a bit slower than perhaps Johnson would have liked.
"The message we relayed to him is that we were building a team and he could be a major part of what we're doing," Knight said. "And we knew from watching him over his first few years in the league that Joe was a perfect fit for our team.
"He's a versatile, multi-position player that can do a lot of things on the court. I thought he could blossom into an All-Star level player and those are the things you talk to him about. And those things have happened. We think this is the year we can make a move and make drastic improvements as a team. We think we can be a lot better this year. And Joe is a cog in that, a main cog."
Johnson could have been a main cog elsewhere and avoided all the drama his signing with the Hawks caused — the Hawks' ongoing ownership feud was triggered by part owner Steve Belkin's opposition to signing and trading players and draft picks for Johnson rather than calling the Suns' bluff that they would match any offers made to the then restricted free agent.
But he chose to stick with the Hawks, even when legal maneuvering forced him to wait until late August to finally sign his deal.
"I had a few teams come at me that summer and they backed out because Phoenix put the word out that they were going to match anything," Johnson said. "A lot of teams were like, 'Why take a chance on Joe Johnson when you're not going to get him anyway.' And all along, Phoenix wasn't going to match. They were just scaring teams off. They didn't scare Atlanta off. The Hawks stayed in there. I'll always remember that."
Cleveland, Denver and the Los Angeles Clippers were three of the other teams that pursued Johnson and backed out. All three have been to the playoffs since; the Cavs lost in the NBA Finals in June.
"Yeah, I guess you could come up with all sorts of ways that I could have ended up somewhere else if things had been handled the right way in Phoenix," Johnson said. "But the Hawks stuck with me when no one else wanted to fight that battle. Atlanta backed up all the things they said to me."
Right before the season starts? Talk about bad timing.