Johnson Expected Back; What Next? Shaq?

Johnson Expected Back; What Next? Shaq?

Published Jul. 6, 2010 11:30 a.m. ET

By John Manasso,
July 6, 2010

So, according to numerous media reports, it appears Joe Johnson will be re-signing with the Atlanta Hawks on Thursday. What next?

In retaining Johnson, the Hawks, winners of 50-plus games the past two seasons, avoided the unknown of what life without their All-Star and leading scorer might have looked like. Would Al Horford and Josh Smith have filled the void to keep the Hawks going forward and Jeff Teague emerged as viable point guard while Jamal Crawford picked up the scoring? Maybe, maybe not.

What seems likely is that the Atlanta Spirit ownership group had too many harrowing memories of those nine seasons -- most of them before their tenure began, mind you, although several of them are long-time season ticket holders -- in which playoff basketball went on hiatus in Atlanta and the Omni and later Philips Arena were near vacant.

Presently, the Hawks are a relatively hot property. They're young, they've been to the second round of the playoffs the last two seasons -- something no other Atlanta pro team can say over that period -- television ratings are relatively strong and the team generally plays before good crowds (they averaged 16,545 last season, or 88.3 percent of capacity).

The dilemma, then, that the Hawks may encounter going into 2010-11 is whether local fans start to treat them with the same cynical eye as they did the Atlanta Braves in the midst of the Braves' unprecedented run of 14 straight division titles. Atlanta fans were mocked for their failure to sell out Turner Field in the postseason and at times when the Braves played teams with large national followings like the Chicago Cubs the national broadcasts would pick up chants or cheers favoring the visitors that further tarnished the city's image as one of being either fair-weather fans or as interested only in college sports.

Thus, the Hawks' great challenge is to convince fans that they have not hit a plateau. By getting swept in the second round for two years in a row, the Hawks run the risk of fans' waiting for the same to happen in 2011 -- and not showing up or supporting the team in the same numbers as in the past.

As a result there are only about two things that I can think of that the Hawks can do to dispel that notion. The first would be to go out and win something approaching 60 games and to claim one of the top two seeds in the Eastern Conference. A couple of smackdowns along the way of rival Orlando wouldn't hurt either to convince fans that if the Hawks meet up with the Magic again in the playoffs, events might go differently next time.

The other factor is player moves. Perhaps that is a reason why the news broke last night that the Hawks are considering offering Shaquille O'Neal a two-year deal. Spirit part owner Michael Gearon, who serves for the group on the NBA's board of governors, made no secret once the season had ended of his disappointment that coach Mike Woodson did not use big men Joe Smith and Jason Collins more both during the regular season and in the playoffs against the Magic's Dwight Howard. That disuse of those big men likely ranked among the factors that led to the group's refusal to offer Woodson a new contract. New coach Larry Drew no doubt understands the mandate from general manager Rick Sund, with Gearon behind him, to play his supporting big men more.

At 38, O'Neal is a far cry from the form that made one of the great centers in league history. Health is an issue, as he played only 53 games for Cleveland last season, and his production dropped to 12.0 points and 6.7 rebounds per game. Yet the chance to sign with a team that could still be on the upswing and to which he might be able to bring more than a small measure of maturity and leadership to a roster very much in need of those intangibles might provide some answers as to why the Big Aristotle would consider inking a deal in Atlanta.

If Shaq can pull it off and save his energies for playoff time -- as the San Antonio Spurs and countless other pro teams with savvy veterans have been known to do over the years -- and help the Hawks get to the conference finals, maybe he's worth taking the risk on. At least, that must be the thinking of Sund and ownership.

Oh, it also doesn't hurt that O'Neal would sell more than a few tickets and jerseys. With his charisma and out-sized personality, he's one of the few pro athletes -- even well past his prime -- that fans will pay to see perform. It's like a few years ago when the Braves nearly signed Ken Griffey Jr. Never mind that Junior was a shadow of his former self, Braves fans got excited about the possibility of going to a game where they'd have a chance to see that flawless swing drive the ball out of the park and, in the process, reviving so many memories of their, as well as Griffey's, youth.

O'Neal has that same potential and box-office draw. If he could help lift the Hawks over Orlando in the postseason against Howard -- Superman vs. Superman -- the gamble would be more than worth it.

The national media is down on the Hawks right now for offering Johnson a max contract and, for the most part, keeping together mostly the same team from the last few seasons. Lest those opinions start deterring fans, management has the power -- as has been the case with the Thrashers in recent weeks where trades, signings and the hiring of a new coach has energized the fan base -- to change opinions through its actions.

If not, only the team's performance come next year can do the convincing.