With free agency coming up in a couple months, we look at the guy who is to thank for putting the Hawks back on the map. He went by the name of ISO Joe, but Joe Johnson brought some of the most exciting moments in recent Hawks history and played a huge part in why the Hawks became relevant again in the NBA.
Back in 2005, the Hawks were coming off a 13 win season. Things were not looking good for the franchise who had not made the playoffs since 1999. The team desperately searched for answers, and after whiffing, or missing out on, guys in the draft, the Hawks were essentially stuck in the bottom of the NBA.
General Manager, Buddy Knight, and Head Coach, Mike Woodson, looked to free agency for an answer, and took a gamble on a fast rising 24 year old player by the name of Joe Johnson. They got him in a sign and trade which sent two firsts and Boris Diaw to Phoenix and the Hawks(technically the Suns) essentially signed Joe to a 5 year deal with an average salary at around $12.5 million.
It was a risk worth taking as Johnson just averaged 17.1 points and shout nearly 48% from 3 the previous season. A franchise that desperately needed to make a big move, got the answer to their prayers, and signed a guy that should have, depending on who you ask, should have his number up in the rafters.
The Hawks were a flat out dumpster fire as we mentioned when Joe came here. His first season, brought no playoffs, but the Hawks doubled their win total from the previous season and Joe averaged slightly over 20 points a game. The Hawks also had a high flyer by the name of Josh Smith, who they drafted in 2004, that began to gel and form a nice duo with Joe.
Let’s fast forward to the 2007 season, where a star that this franchise needed, and had not had in about a decade, was born. A young quartet of Al Horford, Josh Smith, Marvin Williams, and Josh Childress were a nice surrounding core for the Hawks. Mike Bibby was also added near the trade deadline of this season.
Joe Johnson missed 25 games due to injury this season, but he fueled the Hawks to the playoffs for the first time since 1999. He averaged 25 points a game, the highest point per game total for a Hawk since Dominique Wilkins averaged close to 30 in 1993. Sure, the Hawks hit on their draft picks to go with Joe Johnson, Horford was a stellar player, Josh Smith was the best rim protector in the NBA, but it all circles back around to Joe Johnson. The guy who believed he could be the guy on a team and he was a big reason why a team went from 13 wins to a perennial playoff team in just 3 seasons.
As we mentioned the Hawks were a playoff team in the 2007-08 season as an 8 seed, and their opponent was the big 3 of the Boston Celtics. With the surrounding coaching controversy about whether or not Mike Woodson should be fired, the Hawks very slim chance of even making this series diminished to just about zero.
However, this city was buzzing. There was excitement for basketball for the first time in a long time. Rappers, movie stars, filled the court side seats. Phillips Arena( Now state Farm Arena) was filled to max capacity every night. Charles Barkley even said, while he thought the Hawks would be swept, he said at the airport, the talk of the city was this team. This team led by Joe Johnson, was a culture changer here in Atlanta.
If you even have heard of the Atlanta Hawks, you know what happened in this series. This one series forever changed how people viewed the Hawks. From the laughing stock of the league to a team that will fight for every thing and play you tooth and nail.
Joe Johnson averaged 20 points a game this series. The catalyst behind what was almost the biggest upset in NBA history to date because, if you remember, the Celtics originated “the Big 3” of KG, Ray Allen, and Paul Pierce.
This season sparked a decade long run f the Hawks making the playoffs. The team made it no farther than the second round with Joe Johnson, who was traded after the 2011-12, 2 years into his infamous max contract, but that is not the point.
The point is that a guy who could have played anywhere, and wanted to be the guy on a team, chose to do it in Atlanta. He brought together a city. You saw it in the video above, look at the crowd. The city, the fans, were all buzzing, the arena was deemed the Highlight Factory. Kevin Garnett said in an interview a couple years ago that he could even tell the different vibe in Atlanta when the celebrities filled the sidelines and the crowd was buzzing.
This is the scene Hawks fans want. We got our taste of the playoffs, thanks to Joe Johnson. He refueled this city and this generation of fans to love basketball again. Of course you have other key players like Al Horford, Josh Smith, and Zaza, but Joe was the guy.
As we go forward into free agency, the city is buzzing again, much like Joe had the city buzzing. However, it isn’t because of a free agent, it is over a young core that seems to be destined for greatness. The Hawks are poised to add two more top 10 picks to this core, and with the money to sign a max player, it is hard not to be excited.
The main point of all this is, Joe Johnson proved Atlanta can be a destination spot for a big name. He proved this city can be a basketball city. Paul Millsap followed suit a few years ago and was the best player on an Eastern Conference Finals and 60 win team.
Guys like Klay Thompson and Kevin Durant are expected to give the Hawks a look in free agency, and it all circles back around to Joe Johnson, the guy who changed the culture here in Atlanta. He made the second of the playoffs the norm for this franchise. The NBA Championship is always the ultimate goal but every team has their own standards and Joe Johnson raised them for the Hawks.
Some may be thinking what is the point of this article. Well times are changing again here in Atlanta. Trae Young and John Collins seem ready to take off with this franchise and try set new standards for this franchise with the help of potentially a big name free agent.
The question is what can the norm be for this new age Hawks team. Well it is up to them. Joe Johnson and Al Horford set the bar high, but not high enough, but to the point where you realize how much they changed the culture. There is definitely another culture change underway here in Atlanta. However, if there are going to be new standards for this franchise, it will result in trips to the NBA Finals.
Joe Johnson will always be remembered for that max contract he signed that put the front office in a money pickle. It wasn’t his fault, he earned the money.
Still, Joe Johnson should be remembered by saving this franchise from its lowest of lows. This city cares about basketball because of Joe Johnson and all the clutch moments he brought to this city.
I became a basketball fan, and a Hawks fan at a young age, because of Joe Johnson. My first ever sports jersey was a Joe Johnson one.
Thank you Joe, your accomplishments here in Atlanta set the bar for this new age of Hawks basketball.