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Joe Johnson Beyond The Contract

When people talk about Joe Johnson, it always comes back to the contract. He still has two years left on the monster deal he signed with the Atlanta Hawks in 2010, which will pay him $23 million at 33 and $25 million at 34. Johnson is the third highest-paid player in the NBA and his contract is as one of the most untradeable in the league. So when the Hawks pawned him off to the Brooklyn Nets, they were widely praised for getting his salary off their books.

Since the trade was made mostly for financial considerations, the Nets didn’t have to give up a lot of assets to acquire Johnson - a few expiring contracts, a first round pick in 2013 and the option to swap picks in 2015.

From a basketball perspective, that’s not much for a guy who has made the All-Star team in seven of the last eight years. He is off to a scorching hot start this season, averaging 22 points, 7 rebounds and 5 assists a game on 50% shooting.

If anything, the regular season stats obscure how much value Johnson has brought to the Nets over the last two seasons. Brooklyn, an aging team featuring multiple former All-Stars in their 30’s, was a team built with the postseason in mind, where Johnson can be absolutely lethal. In a seven-game series, Johnson’s ability to match up with multiple positions on defense and command a double team on offense can still pay huge dividends for his team.

We saw that in the Nets first-round series against the Toronto Raptors, a back-and-forth affair that came down to the final seconds of Game 7. Toronto won more regular season games than Brooklyn and they had more athleticism across their line-up, but they didn’t really have anyone who could match up with Johnson. At 6’8 240, Johnson could bully their smaller wing players, taking them down to the block and raining jumpers on them like it was nothing.

If the Raptors sent a double team, the Nets had the players to spread the floor around him and Johnson had the size and passing ability to find the open man. He was a one-man offense in the half-court, a tremendously valuable asset when the pace of the game slows down in the post-season. In 12 games in last year’s playoffs, Johnson averaged 21 points, 4 rebounds and 3 assists a game on 54% shooting. Without Johnson, Brooklyn loses in the first round.

Because they went out with a relative whimper against the Miami Heat in the second round, their season was widely viewed as a disappointment, especially when you consider how much they paid in salaries. At the same time, any team that loses its best player (Brook Lopez) for the season and still makes the second round can’t have been all bad. Their only real problem was they ran into LeBron James at the peak of his powers without a big man to fight him.

LeBron effectively ended their season in Game 4, when he put up 49 points on 16-24 shooting in a performance for the ages, carrying the Heat to a 6-point victory and giving them a commanding 3-1 lead in the series. There just wasn’t much a team without a lot of athleticism on the perimeter or size upfront could do to stop LeBron. Lopez probably wouldn’t have pushed them over the top, but his sheer mass in the paint would have changed the dynamic completely.

Even without Lopez, they would have had a fighting shot against every other team in the East in a seven game series. Given the way the Pacers collapsed over the second half of the season, the Nets would have had a real shot to advance through that side of the bracket and make the Eastern Conference Finals. Their ability to control tempo, pound the ball inside to Johnson and let him win games in the final minute would have given them a puncher’s chance.

Even as he moves into his mid 30’s, there are not many guys in the NBA who have Johnson’s ability to dominate an individual match-up in a seven-game series. Size and shooting ability are the two traits which correlate best with aging well and Johnson was one of the biggest and best shooting SG’s in the NBA at his peak. He is well on his way to a Hall of Fame career - he has made 7 All-Star teams and his game isn’t slipping much as he ages

Johnson has received a ton of criticism because he has been paid as much as guys like LeBron and Kobe over the course of his career, but that says more about how much those two are underpaid in the NBA’s economic climate. While he isn’t a franchise player in the sense that his presence on a team instantly makes them relevant, he brings a lot to the table in terms of helping his teams win and he hasn’t been on a lot of bad teams over the course of his career.

Atlanta won 13 games the year before they acquired Johnson. Their win total increased in each of his first five seasons with the franchise, peaking at 53 wins in 2010. The Hawks went to the playoffs five times with Johnson and advanced to the second round three times - they were a much better team than they were given credit for by the national media and there are a lot of franchises in the NBA who would kill for a 5+ year run anywhere close to that.

When they traded him to the Nets, it was supposed to be a dawn of a new era for the Hawks, but it hasn’t really worked out so far. While they haven’t got much worse without Johnson, they haven’t gotten much better either. They lost in the first round in each of the last two seasons and they don’t appear to be any closer to becoming a contender in the Eastern Conference. There’s a good chance they end up unloading Al Horford and beginning a full-fledged rebuild.

That may ultimately end up being the best move for a franchise that could never translate on-court success into much fan interest, but it doesn’t mean that Johnson wasn’t worth the money the Hawks were paying him. Not every team in the NBA can contend for championships - there’s nothing wrong with trying to compete on an annual basis in order to win one or two playoff series. In some markets around the league, that would count as a tremendous success.

The Nets are the perfect example of that type of franchise, as they had a new owner who wanted to make an instant splash in the New York media market. They wanted to sell out their new stadium and be relevant right away, which meant buying low on talented players like Johnson who would only cost them money. Brooklyn isn’t Atlanta or Oklahoma City - payroll efficiency wasn’t the primary concern for Mikhail Prokhorov in building a team. 

And while the Nets high-priced roster didn’t live up to the lofty goals he set out for them, it’s hard to say they were a bad investment either. Prokhorov bought the franchise for $250 million and he is reportedly shopping them around for a price of well over $1 billion. When you are talking money like that, what’s a few million dollars in luxury tax payments among friends? If you asked them again, they would re-do the Johnson trade with Atlanta every time.

To be sure, that doesn’t mean they haven’t made a lot of personnel mistakes and the decision to trade three unprotected future first-round picks for Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce could end up blowing up in their face. Going forward, the biggest concern they have is whether Lopez and Deron Williams can stay healthy. The injury woes of the Nets other stars, meanwhile, only illustrate how dependable Johnson has been over the course of his career.

In 13 seasons in the NBA, Johnson has played less than 70 games only twice, all while being a mainstay of his team’s game plan on both sides of the ball. The NBA regular season is a brutal grind that forces players to criss-cross the North American continent while cramming 82 games into six months and there are a lot of guys whose bodies can’t take it. Johnson has always been a reliable pro, a great player who shows up every day and punches the clock.

Part of the reason he is so underrated around the league is his style of play, which has always been more functional than flashy. Not many casual fans get excited when he comes into town - drop everything, we need to go the arena to watch Joe Johnson hold the ball and launch up a mid-range jumpers! However, if he had spent his career playing for a team like the Celtics or the Spurs, he would be beloved as a blue-collar star who always answered the bell.

And when you consider how much money has poured into the NBA over the last generation, it’s hard to begrudge him the $150 million he has earned. No one holds making that type of money against baseball players, mainly because their sport doesn’t have a salary cap. The Nets paying Johnson $23 million this season is like the Los Angeles Dodgers paying Adrian Gonzalez $21 million - the cost of doing business for a big-market team trying to win.

Few are talking about Brooklyn this season, but they are still a dangerous team that no one in the East is going to want to play in the first round. A large part of that has to do with Johnson, who is still one of the best wing players in the NBA. His max contract isn’t the most efficient use of resources, but there are far worse ways to spend $23 million. If the worst thing people can say about a guy’s career is he made too much money, he must have been doing something right.

George Stars, Pacers Reappear To Advance Past Hawks

It took the Indiana Pacers more than four minutes to get on the board in Game 7 on Saturday night, but their first basket was a good omen.

Roy Hibbert, savaged in the media and on Twitter throughout a horrendous series, scored eight of Indiana's first 16 points to help steady an offense that looked shaky early on. Hibbert finished with 13 points, seven rebounds and five blocks in 31 minutes. He had 10 points, seven rebounds and four blocks combined in his previous four games.

Maybe it was Hibbert's effectiveness. Maybe it was the crowd at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Maybe it was the 16-4 run they used to win Game 6 at Philips Arena on Thursday night. Whatever is was -- something woke up the Pacers against the Atlanta Hawks with a date in the semifinals against the Washington Wizards on the line.

The Pacers were the aggressors on only a few occasions through the first six games, but looked engaged for almost the full 48 with their season on the line once again. They had their best defensive performance of the playoffs, allowing only a few open threes to a team that set a postseason record for attempts. They went 11-for-44 in Game 7.

Indiana pounded Atlanta on the glass (55-38) and their aggressiveness on both sides of the ball frustrated the Hawks. The Pacers finally imposed their will, earning an important 29-16 edge in free throw attempts.

The final score, 92-80, wasn't really indicative of how the game was played. Indiana dominated so many moments that it felt like more than a 12-point win, but there is an argument to be made in the other direction. The Hawks shot 25% from three, but seemed to make a few in a row whenever the Pacers flirted with a blowout, always staying within striking distance.

It isn't surprising that, in addition to Atlanta's threes, turnovers kept the Pacers from truly pulling away. They had 18 miscues, but the Hawks rarely took advantage on the ensuing possession. The Hawks had 15 offensive rebounds, including 10 from Paul Millsap, but those came on 64 missed shots.

Paul George, Lance Stephenson and George Hill played great perimeter defense, rotating well and getting out to shooters consistently. That allowed David West and Hibbert to guard the paint. The duo also protected the rim and altered numerous shots. West, Hibbert and Ian Mahinmi combined to block 13 shots. One of those rejections helped swing the momentum towards the home team heading into halftime.

Jeff Teague, who hurt the Pacers with his speed over the two-week battle, had 10 points on 4-for-8 shooting in the first half. He had a shot at the rim emphatically blocked by Mahinmi as time expired in the second quarter. From that point forward, the Indianapolis native had just six points (1-for-8), two assists, two turnovers and three fouls.

The Pacers can only enjoy a collective sigh of relief for a few moments. The Wizards are much more talented than the Hawks and aren't short on confidence. Washington doesn't pose the same crippling matchup issues that Atlanta did, but the kind of performance we saw from the Pacers over the course of these last seven games simply won't get it done in the next round.

If Indiana wants to make their detractors forget about the first round, they'll have to play like they did on Saturday night for the entire Washington series.

PG 24

His efforts were largely overshadowed by his team's struggles, but Paul George had a tremendous series against the Hawks. He averaged 23.9 points, 10.7 rebounds, 4.6 assists and 2.4 steals on 45.8% shooting and posted a double-double in six of the seven contests.

George, who turned 24 on Friday, saved the best for last with 30 points and 11 rebounds in the deciding game. He only made one of his eight three-point attempts, but was 10-for-15 from the rest of the field. He seemed to answer with a jumper every time the Hawks made a mini-run.

Vogel Is Rewarded

Frank Vogel said after the win that he was "feeling" for Roy Hibbert, who has become like a member of his family in recent years. While the coach flirted with disaster by sticking with the big man too long throughout a majority of the series, he was rewarded with a strong effort in the most important game of the season.

It's no secret that Hibbert can be fragile. He saw a sports physiologist early in his career and always seems to play at his best when he is most confident. The Pacers even publicly admitted that they felt Hibbert cared too much when he was at his lowest against the Hawks.

For Vogel and Hibbert, what transpired in the final game of the series was a small reward for loyalty.

Hibbert's 13 points were his most since March 31 and his five blocks his highest total since he turned away the same number on March 28. The performance wasn't dominant by any stretch, but it could go a long way towards boosting Hibbert's confidence. He tied with George for the best +/- (16) in the game. 

Millsap Produces Inefficiently

Look quickly and Paul Millsap had a very good night -- 15 points and 17 rebounds. He was Atlanta's best player, but didn't truly get going until the third quarter.

Millsap entered halftime with two points and five boards. He missed his first nine shots before getting on track late. He went 6-for-12 in the second half and ended up with nine points and eight rebounds in the third alone.  

He was a beast on the glass against the taller Pacers as his teammates grabbed just 21 rebounds, but he missed all five of his attempts from deep and needed 21 shots to reach 15 points.

Pacers Wake Up Late, Use Run To Force Game 7 Against Hawks

Jeff Teague hit a jumper with 3:16 left in the fourth quarter to give the Atlanta Hawks a 74-69 lead over the Indiana Pacers on Thursday night. The shot gave Teague, who glared over at the Pacers heading into the timeout, 29 points and seemed to put a bow on a surprising series.

Coming out of the timeout, George Hill, Lance Stephenson, Paul George, David West and Ian Mahinmi walked onto the floor with the season slipping away. Forget about another lengthy playoff run, forget about a chance at redemption against the Miami Heat, the Pacers were less than four minutes away from losing Game 6 at Philips Arena and joining the short list of No. 1 seeds that have been upended by their eighth-seeded opponents.

It remains to be seen if the Pacers have finally woken up from a two-month slumber, but something significant changed after Teague drained that jumper. To put it simply, West decided that this team would live to play at least one more game.

The Pacers went on a 16-4 run over the final 3:16, an amazing run with an offensive explosion and strong defensive stand, en route to a 95-88 win.

West had eight points over the stretch, making three of his four shots and both his free throws. The veteran hasn't had the best series -- he had a combined 16 points and 10 rebounds in the first two games -- but took the game over when his teammates needed him most. He finished with 24 points, 11 rebounds, six assists and two steals. He attempted a team-high 20 shots.

A few ill-advised jumpers aside, George, who will turn 24 years old between games, was excellent as well. He had 24 points and eight rebounds on 7-for-18 shooting.  He made four straight foul shots in the final 33.8 seconds to seal the victory.

After Teague's jumper, the Hawks went 1-for-6 from the field and committed two turnovers. The Pacers punched back, no pun intended after the second-quarter scuffle between Hill and Mike Scott, and the Hawks were unable to answer.

With Game 7 looming at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on Saturday, there isn't an outcome that doesn't seem conceivable.

Vogel Adjusts … Sort Of

Frank Vogel finally coached to his opponent in the win ... to a degree. Vogel pulled Roy Hibbert, who has had a historically bad postseason, with 5:26 left in the first quarter. Chris Copeland and C.J. Watson were the first players off the bench, while Evan Turner never played and Luis Scola was only active for the final 12.4 seconds.

The Hawks led 14-5 when Hibbert went to the bench and Indiana was 2-for-9 from the floor with two turnovers. The two-time All-Star remained on the sidelines for the remainder of the half and the Pacers responded accordingly. They led (44-39) at halftime for the first time in the series and shot 15-for-27 (55.6%) over the final 17-plus minutes. The offensive spacing improved immediately with the smaller lineup, essentially Copeland for Hibbert, leading to better looks for George and others. Copeland wasn't a revelation (five points, three rebounds, three fouls and three turnovers in 18:28) but his presence on the floor changed how Atlanta defended. 

Vogel seemed to concede that Hibbert simply wasn't the best option when he sent Mahinmi out to begin the third quarter, but then Mike Scott happened.

Scott, who was on fire from deep in Game 5 and shoved Hill in the face in the second quarter, posterized Mahinmi at the 3:22 mark of the third. The slam sent the Hawks off on a 9-2 run that tied the game at 61 less than two minutes later. The combination of Scott's rim-rattling dunk and Mahinmi picking up his fourth foul led Vogel to send Hibbert back out.

The Hawks proceeded to score the final four points of the quarter, grabbing a three-point lead. Hibbert Time over, right? Nope. He played another five minutes, blocking a shot and collecting two rebounds, but also embarrassing himself by getting spun around by Teague and fronted defensively by Lou Williams. It wasn't his fault, but Hibbert's teammates also struggled to even get him the ball in the post. Atlanta led 74-73 when Copeland replaced Hibbert for the final time with 7:01 left in the game.

The clubs then traded baskets before Teague made shots on back-to-back possessions, bringing us to the point at which West took the game over with 3:16 left.

Hibbert finished -12 in a seven-point win. He actually played 12 more seconds than he did in Indiana's Game 5 loss. I'm fine with Vogel ceremoniously starting Hibbert and trotting him out for a few minutes, but he flirted with disaster in the fourth quarter. He'll have to be more careful on Saturday in Game 7.

Strong Fourth Quarter

The first eight-plus minutes weren't all that impressive, but the Pacers matched their best offensive quarter of the series in the fourth. They scored 31 points, equaled only by the third quarter of Game 2 when they went on a run that also ultimately decided the game.

Here is a snapshot of the numbers Indiana enjoyed in the two quarters:

April 22, Third Quarter, Game 2: 12/16 FGs, 5/5 FTs, 4 TOs, 1.396 points per poss.

May 1, Fourth Quarter, Game 6: 9/18 FGs, 12/12 FTs, 3 TOs, 1.332 points per poss.

You Can Never Have Enough Tall Shooters

The Pacers are one of the biggest teams in the NBA, with a 7í2 Goliath standing in front of the rim next to another 6í9 bruiser and three of the longest and most athletic perimeter players in the NBA in front of them. They were built to beat the Heat, a team full of slashers, but they have no answer for an Atlanta offense that plays five out.

Blame All Around As Pacers Face Elimination

The Pacers are a loss away from elimination at the hands of the Hawks and it has become apparent that there are internal issues that will need to be addressed this offseason, even if they mount a comeback.

Pacers Grind Out Win, Even Series With Hawks

Evan Turner was the unsung hero for the Pacers in Game 4 as he picked up the offense when Lance Stephenson went to the bench with two quick fouls. The series now shifts to Indiana for a pivotal fifth game on Monday night.

Pacers Look Lost In Atlanta, Hawks Grab Series Lead

The Pacers continue to baffle. After looking like a No. 1 seed late in Game 2, they appeared confused in a double-digit loss to the Hawks in Atlanta.

Pacers Turn Up Defense, Show Signs Of Life In Game 2 Win

Paul George looked like the player we saw in the first half of the season, George Hill was aggressive and the Pacers adjusted to the Hawks to win Game 2 and tie the best-of-seven series.

Pacers Can't Flip Switch Against Hawks In Game 1

Instead of wiping away concerns about their poor finish to the season, the Pacers created more uncertainty with a disappointing loss to the Hawks on Saturday night.

RealGM's Playoff Predictions

All eight RealGM writers predict the Heat along with either the Thunder or Spurs to reach The Finals.

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The East deals included the only two All-Stars dealt (Antawn Jamison and Danny Granger), the two best players (Evan Turner and Spencer Hawes), and the smartest player (Professor Andre Miller, PhD).

Fix It: Atlanta Hawks

The Hawks have long been on the mediocrity treadmill and that continues as they were unable to acquire a superstar with cap space this past offseason in free agency. They must stay the course and eventually pounce on a James Harden-like trade.

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The following 30 questions are the biggest issues facing each NBA front office as the 13-14 regular season begins.

30-Team Offseason Rundown

Great drafts for the Rockets, 76ers, Nets, Warriors, Hawks and Grizzlies headline this complete rundown of the 2013 offseason.

2013 NBA Offseason Primer

With the 2013 NBA offseason underway, here is a primer on what all 30 teams are facing.

Leroux's 2013 NBA Draft Review

Breaking down all 30 teams by category of how they fared in the often surprising, never disappointing 2013 NBA Draft.

2013 NBA Amnesty Primer

One fun component of the Amnesty rule is that we know exactly which players are eligible for it and that number can only decrease over time since the players had to have been under contract with the same team before the new CBA.

Defense Clicks Late, But Pacers Canít Recover

The Pacers were locked in defensively in the second half on Monday night, but it was too little too late as the Atlanta Hawks won 102-91 and evened the first round best-of-seven series at two games apiece.

Woes In Atlanta Continue For Pacers In Game 3 Loss

The Hawks went with a bigger starting lineup in Game 3, which led the Pacers to have an abysmal performance on the offensive end of the floor.

George Powers Offense In Game 1 Win Over Hawks

Such a dominant triple-double performance to begin the playoffs is one thing, but the matter in which Paul George scored his 23 points bodes well for the Pacers going forward.

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