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Shaun Powell

Where have you gone, Joe Johnson? And where will you go after this?
Scott Cunningham/NBAE via Getty Images

For Hawks' Johnson, playoff slump could cost him in summer

Posted May 5 2010 3:58PM

ORLANDO -- Part of him craves to be ordinary. Just an Ordinary Joe. He's quiet by nature, is hardly flamboyant, doesn't do anything to make the highlights, and would rather just blend in and not be noticed too much.

Problem is, the Hawks need Joe Johnson to be anything but that, especially coming off a 43-point punch in the gut by the Magic. Furthermore, how exactly will the Ordinary Joe play on the open market this summer as a free agent, when Johnson wants to command a superstar's ransom?

Those are the issues swirling around Johnson as the Hawks try to pick up their shattered egos here in the playoffs. They were pushed to the limit by an inferior Bucks team in the first round, then were stomped in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals. Both times, they didn't get a major lift from their best player. In such a delicate and important stretch, during which he could have helped both the Hawks and his bargaining strength this summer, Johnson has just blended into the scenery. Ordinary Joe.

If he's feeling the weight of pressure -- which he denies -- he's certainly not alone. These are sweaty times for Johnson and other free agents-to-be, who are essentially auditioning for their next team, or their next contract, or both. Other teams in the hunt for talent are busy taking notes during these playoffs and figuring how to spend their money and on whom.

Right now, regarding Johnson, they're watching someone who's an All-Star and proven all-around player drop a notch below his standards -- not exactly stinking up the court, but not standing out, either. For four straight games now, Johnson is shooting 33 percent and the Hawks, for the most part, have struggled partly because of that.

"He's in a slump," said Hawks coach Mike Woodson. "But I never count Joe out."

After missing jumpers and never taking charge against Orlando, hoisting just 11 shots, even Johnson admitted: "I've got to be more aggressive, stop waiting, and just attack. My shots will fall. I won't worry about it."

When these playoffs end for the Hawks, what Johnson wants is no regrets. He turned down a four-year, $60 million extension from the club before the season. That was a curious strategy, because $15 million a season represents a major financial commitment by a team with limited means. Also, with a new collective bargaining agreement looming next season, you wonder how many others will be as generous, or more, come this summer when Johnson goes shopping.

Johnson said his refusal to re-up with the Hawks wasn't a sign of disrespect, just a willingness to explore all options. And what might those options be? Well, Johnson is valued around the league because, despite his postseason performance, he's solidly consistent. He's usually good for 20 points, six assists, four rebounds, a few steals, handles the ball well and plays good defense.

But can he drag a team through the playoffs and come up big in fourth quarters? That was always the rap on Johnson, which he's done little to refute through eight games in this postseason.

He probably shouldn't be anyone's No. 1 player, and perhaps Johnson doesn't want such a role. He could ride shotgun to Dwyane Wade in Miami, or join Chris Bosh in New York or New Jersey, or catch passes from Derrick Rose in Chicago. It's debatable, though, whether any of the above will guarantee Johnson an upgrade over his current situation, on a No. 3-seed playoff team with a rising nucleus.

Here's how the playoff status report reads on the other bigger-name free agents:

Carlos Boozer. He was clearly the best big man on the floor in the Denver series (22.5 points, 13.3 rebounds) and there was even talk about Boozer staying with the Jazz. That was inconceivable during the preseason, especially after Utah paid Paul Millsap, Boozer's designated replacement. The betting money still has Boozer leaving because of luxury tax issues involving the Jazz.

Amar'e Stoudemire. The Suns could move past the Spurs and into the Western Conference finals and, if so, Stoudemire (20.9 playoff average) would be a big reason. Once the trade talk died in mid-February, he raised his game and the Suns' title chances as well. He still has an option to return for $18 million next season, money he can't get elsewhere.

Dirk Nowitzki. After a third first-round exit in four years, Dirk said he'd explore his options this summer. He can sign an extension, play next season in Dallas for $21.5 million, or become unrestricted. The latter seems a reach, if only because Dirk can't imagine playing for another organization. But wasn't that once the general thought about his former Mavericks teammate, Steve Nash?

Dwyane Wade. Miami didn't lose its first-round series because of him. He will re-sign unless Miami can't find him any help. And just think, his coach next season could be Pat Riley.

LeBron James. For the second time in months, David Stern openly wished for LeBron to stay in Cleveland. At this point, other than Knicks' fans, who doesn't?

Ray Allen. Hard to see him staying in Boston, but at least Allen (19 points, 51 percent shooting) is proving in the postseason that he can still help somebody at his age (35 in July). Can you see him taking the exception and joining Wade and another free agent in Miami?

Raymond Felton. Jameer Nelson probably cost Felton a few dollars in the first round. Still, on a market lacking in point guards, he'll go somewhere.

Shaun Powell is a veteran NBA writer and columnist. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

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