How much does Joe Johnson want to win? Here’s the key question. He’s already a rich man, and he’s about to become a richer one. Does he want to retire with a bunch of points and a huge financial portfolio, or does he want to re-invent himself as Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen have? Each of them was what Johnson is — a great player/main man who could never sniff a title. They changed because they cared more about winning. We’re about to learn what motivates Joe Johnson.If Joe Johnson wants to be a key, complementary player a championship team, he needn't re-invent himself. He just needs to play on a better team* than he ever has in Atlanta. His peak value is closer to a thirty-something, re-invented Allen, Pierce, or Garnett than any of them at their peak. All four were main men. Only three were great.
*A category which could well include the 2010-11 Hawks.
Despite the amount of time the ball's spent in his hands, only twice (2006-07 and 2009-10) in five seasons in Atlanta has Johnson averaged 20 points per 36 minutes. Ray Allen averaged 20 points per 36 minutes for eight straight seasons before joining the Celtics at the age of 32. Paul Pierce averaged 20 points per 36 minutes for seven straight seasons before Allen and Garnett joined him in Boston. Both Pierce and Allen were (and are) far more efficient scorers than Johnson, were better rebounders than Johnson in their primes, Pierce, in his prime, posted similar assist rates to Johnson, and Allen, in his prime, turned the ball over as infrequently as Johnson. Even Kevin Garnett, whose value as a defender and rebounder dwarfs that of Johnson to the degree that the two are thoroughly incomparable as players, scored and earned assists at a slightly higher rate in Minnesota than Johnson has in Atlanta.
Joe Johnson's career-best PER is 19.5*. Garnett has bettered that in 12 of his 15 seasons and posted a 19.4 PER this season. Ray Allen had a PER of at least 20.6 for eight straight seasons from the age of 24 to 31. Paul Pierce had a PER of at least 19.2 for each of his first ten seasons in the league.
*And that came in his injury-shortened 2006-07 season. His full-season best is the 19.3 he posted last season.
As a further point of comparison, Al Horford's career-best PER is 19.4. Josh Smith's is 21. They're four and five years younger than Johnson, respectively. Those two could form a fine triumvirate* with Johnson for the next couple of years. Unfortunately, that attractive scenario is not an option for the Hawks. Cap mismanagement and waste of resources have left them two unattractive opions: pay Joe Johnson for the next five years as if he's the franchise player he's never been at any point in his career** and is highly unlikely to become in his 30s, or, refuse to overpay Johnson in either the short- or long-term while also lacking the ability to replace his very real and useful production.
*One that would still leave the Hawks short both a Rajon Rondo and a Kendrick Perkins if one assumes championship aspirations, but that speaks more to larger problems.
**That it's almost impossible to imagine Johnson being underpaid for his production is also the argument for him securing his financial future this summer, consequences be damned--a decision I would not criticize.
Choosing the least damaging path for franchise must begin with evaluating Johnson's production against his contemporary and historical peers who have been given similar, primary roles rather than against the 2004-05 Atlanta Hawks. The void he filled for that team no longer exists in Atlanta.