The Biggest NBA Free Agency Mistake Debate… Solid and Quiet is Not Worth the Max

Read the opposing arguments from Loyal Homer and Bleacher Fan.

Seldom do the writers here at TSD get to approach a topic where it is difficult to narrow the choices down to just three. With so much free agent activity in the NBA, and so many questionable decisions, it is tough to pick the only three of the biggest free agency mistakes.

And, we have to limit selections to the 2010. Hindsight is 20-20, but the issues from last off-season with the Pistons signing Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva are obvious. Neither player performed to even half of the expectations upon them this season. Last off-season these two were two of the most highly sought after players. Then both players were at or below career averages in points per game and field goal percentage. There is no question that the Detroit Pistons are worse than before the players came to the team.

But, that was last off-season. The 2010 offseason has been a wild ride.

Before I launch into my argument it is only fair to point that some teams were held hostage by the furtive tampering of the cowardly LeBron James. Teams that may have made a good decision on day one of free agency were unable to make any moves until James announced his decision. I am specifically referring to a team like the Cleveland Cavaliers, though the New York Knicks also fall under this category as well. While the Knicks chose to mortgage the future years ago in hopes of landing James, the Cavaliers were the most hamstrung. Nevertheless, several teams were unable to make moves early, which means fewer players were there for the taking as the NBA free agency period begins to wane. Decisions that would normally fall under scrutiny should be withheld from too much criticism.

Of course, the signing of guard Joe Johnson by the Atlanta Hawks, right as free agency opened, falls outside of the forgivable scenario I just outlined.

It is no mystery that Joe Johnson is a scorer. Ever since he first began to gain notoriety with the Phoenix Suns it was clear where his skill set was the sharpest. As a young 22-year old he averaged over 16 points a game, and then added another point to that total at the age of 23. At 24 Johnson proved that his abilities were being limited by the impressive depth of the Suns’ scoring offense by reaching 20 points per game. Age 25 was Johnson’s best with a fitting 25 points per game.

But that was three seasons ago. Johnson is now in his late 20s, and his points per game have steadily declined each season, though he is still getting over 18 field goal attempts per game. Johnson’s assists have also dropped by an entire assist per game – to under five – since his peak at age 25.

More, Johnson is not the type of clutch scorer that teams are able to build successful post-season runs around. Johnson does not have Kobe Bryant’s reliable shot, Paul Pierce’s penchant for tough game winners, or even Dwayne Wade’s never-say-die-attitude. Johnson is a good player, but he does not have the personality of a leader. When it comes to big contracts, personality has to matter because teams are buying an entire package. Johnson has basketball skills, but he does not have the leadership qualities and personality befitting of the massive six year $124M contract.

The Hawks are now saddled with Joe Johnson’s contract for six additional seasons – until the declining, albeit still talented Johnson is 34.

I like Joe Johnson. He seems like a really nice person, a quiet and strong player, and a valued teammate. But, does he have the complete game – offense and defense – and the offensive firepower to warrant the massive contract reward from the Atlanta Hawks? No way. Worse, the Hawks are now in a poor position financially, and will have difficulty ridding the books of the Johnson-contract albatross in coming seasons… especially under the mystery of a new collective bargaining agreement.

Johnson is familiar with the Hawks, and the Hawks are familiar with him. The negotiations were short, and Johnson never seriously flirted with leaving Atlanta. But the Hawks really botched the negotiations, or have seriously misdiagnosed his value over the next six seasons. Max contracts are not automatic based on tenure or familiarity. They are earned by the truly elite players in the NBA, both in skill and leadership. Joe Johnson is not one of those players, and the Atlanta Hawks will be paying the price for missing that reality for the next six years.

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