First, about Joe Johnson.
He is 34 years old and staring at the finish line of his career. So it wasn’t surprising that he was anxious to take a buyout of the final season of his contract in the NBA’s black hole that is Brooklyn, with the apparent intent to sign with a title contender. But if reports are true that Johnson will sign with Miami this weekend after officially clearing waivers, a championship ring clearly wasn’t high on his agenda or he would’ve signed with Cleveland.
The Heat are among the afterthought teams in the Eastern Conference. When Johnson made his decision, they were in fourth place at 1½ games ahead of the Hawks and they might be even more of a longshot in the playoffs than Atlanta given Chris Bosh’s unlikely return. I’m not sure where the Heat fit in the pecking order among the teams interested in Johnson but they’re definitely not in the top three (Cleveland, Oklahoma City, Toronto), which tells you the biggest concern about Johnson’s potential return to the Hawks — that he just wants his shots and his minutes — has been reaffirmed.
Joe loves Joe. And possibly the beach.
“Joe had a lot of options and I think it’s stone crab season,” Hawks CEO Steve Koonin said on the “Dukes and Bell” show on 92.9 FM.
Now , about the Hawks.
They went 0-for-2. They’re not going to admit this publicly, but a source said they had strong interest in signing Anderson Varejao when Cleveland waived the power forward/center, only to see Varejao opt to sign with Golden State. (Conclusion: Winning a title was a high priority for Varejao, unlike Johnson.) They also badly wanted Johnson to give them another viable scoring option, especially given their struggles on the wings with Kent Bazemore and Kyle Korver.
So what’s the plan now? Hold hands and pray for a group healing?
These Hawks don’t remotely look like the team of a year ago. Since a high-water mark of 26-17 on Jan. 20, they’re 6-10, even with Friday night’s win over Chicago, and spiraling down in the standings. They weren’t an overly physical team last season when they won 60 games but they’ve lost their edge at both ends of the court and they’ve been erratic.
At times, they lack passion.
At times, they lack defense.
The sense of urgency they played with a year ago: it comes and goes.
I don’t believe Mike Budenholzer became a bad coach overnight, but in situations like this it’s common for some to wonder if players have started to tune out their coach. Budenholzer shot down that theory when I asked him about it Thursday and Al Horford similarly came to his coach’s defense: “No, the coaches have been great with us. It’s about us as players taking that next step with this team. I really think once we start winning a couple of games, we’ll be fine.”
When asked about the attitude in the locker room, Horford also maintained, “Guys are in a good place. Obviously we’re frustrated with the way things are going. But the coach has been great. He’s supporting us. Guys are getting in their work.”
The results haven’t been there, however. I’ve addressed likely reasons for this before but I think it comes down to personnel issues. Budenholzer and general manager Wes Wilcox did not adequately replace DeMarre Carroll, who left in free agency.
A case could be made they also miss the edge and physical presence that Pero Antic supplied. Tiago Splitter was expected to help as a big off the bench but his play was mediocre to average and then he suffered a season-ending hip injury.
None of this means the Hawks won’t suddenly get on a roll and maybe even a round of playoffs. But a return to the Eastern Conference finals is a longshot. Johnson might’ve helped them a little but he likely wouldn’t have changed the big picture.
I doubt Johnson would change Miami’s fortunes, either. But what does it say that he apparently chose the Heat over the Hawks? Or maybe it’s just about the beach.
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