Continued from Part I: Fairways and the Naked Truth
“We’re gonna kick ass!” I shouted, high-fiving my newly announced team members. I glanced at Sam. “Hope you’re up for it Franchise!”.
After a night of continued drinking and shitty sleep thanks to my new teammate (the “Crap Golfer”) snoring like a moose orgy, I woke pumped for the day of Ambrose Golf ahead. We were the only team with four players, a distinct advantage no matter who’s on your team. The area this most pays off is in putting, where the void between “Franchise Player” and “Crap Golfer” is often diminished. If the first three guys blow their putts, the fourth guy has had a really good chance to assess the lie, the speed of the green, and the slope, based on the previous shots. We figured even if our long game wasn’t firing, we’d have the upper hand once we got close to the green.
We would be the last group teeing off, and watched as the other groups hit fairly decent drives up the fairway. It appeared that our perennial “Franchise Players” were in good form, including Pete who had somehow slipped to 5th in our rankings. That was not a good sign. Two in-form Franchise Players on the one team normally guaranteed victory, even if they had one Crap Golfer and no Safeties.
As the other groups faded into the horizon, it was time for our team to step up (we did have a team name, but it is absolutely beyond-inappropriate for this blog). Just as any true Franchise Player should, Sam stepped up proudly to the tee, set his ball, and took a few practice swings while maintaining the most focused glare I have ever seen him make. This was our Franchise man, and he was taking this gig seriously. I was loving it. Until I heard these two sounds…
Right in the middle of the fairway… of the 18th hole. But hey, this is Ambrose. One bad shot can quickly be made history, and we weren’t going to let our Franchise guy down. Our Crap Golfer stepped up and quickly set about validating his role. The shot dribbled along the footpath to the right, settling near a tree that I could have pissed on from where I was standing. Now, if we were a three-man team the next guy would have had an awfully large amount of pressure on him. But as it was, we were only halfway through our shots and still feeling pretty good about ourselves. Our other trusty Safety stepped up and connected on a drive that hooked slightly left, which would have been fine, except the left side of this hole was a 45-degree-sloped hill covered in trees and shit. Now we were in trouble.
I was up last which was my preferred position, and set about avoiding the danger area on the left. In typical golf fashion, I went dramatically right landing amongst the trees that separated the 1st and 18th fairways. So for those keeping count, we were spoilt with the choice of one crap shot, one dismal shot, one unplayable shot, and one fucking useless shot.
It’s never a good sign in Ambrose when after everyone tees off they start walking in completely opposite directions to fetch their ball. It doesn’t exactly inspire confidence for the team, and only gives you more time to solemnly reflect on your terrible golf skills and question why you bother playing this game. As it turned out, it was the ‘unplayable shot’ that was the best choice. We ended up rallying to bogey the hole which we thought was “solid”, and swore to get back on par the next hole.
Except we didn’t get back on par.
Perhaps burdened with the unfamiliar pressure of being a Franchise Player, or more likely just returning to his natural golfing equilibrium, Sam ended up playing the worst round of golf I have ever seen him play. It probably didn’t help that after every woeful shot he took we’d mutter “nice one Franchise” or some similar smug remark. And we didn’t exactly help the cause by playing very mediocre golf ourselves. But for some reason we felt that our franchise guy was the suitable object for our frustration and the source of our failure. I’m not sure when it happened exactly, but during the back nine this frustration turned to mild verbal abuse, and poor Sam was left stranded on Franchise Island without a canoe.
He didn’t really deserve it. It wasn’t his fault that his recent performances had set the bar too high. That on paper, he had all the right ingredients for a Franchise guy…
Sam had shanked another one. I turned to Ham, our other Safety. “He’s not even a real franchise player”, I said shaking my head. I looked at Sam who was violently ramming his four-iron into his buggy, a face of sheer disgust. “Hey Sam, you’re the Joe Johnson of Golf Trip!”. Ham laughed. Sam still looked pissed. I don’t think he knew who Joe Johnson was.
The rise of Joe Johnson is a curious tale. He went from partaking in the decade’s most exhilarating offense alongside Nash, Amare and Marion in a Western Conference Powerhouse, to six months later trying to steer a 13-win Hawks team towards some form of respectability. In Phoenix he was a gunner, a three point shooter, a backup point guard, an athletic shooting guard with mouth-watering potential. But he was all those things on a team that gunned for a living, that shot threes unconsciously, that didn’t even really need a backup point guard, and thanks to Steve Nash, took the hard work out of athleticism. It created an illusion that Joe was better than he really was, that playing fourth banana was somehow robbing NBA fans the pleasure of watching a true superstar explode organically into all four corners of possibility. A Franchise Player in bloom.
The problem was that Joe Johnson never was – and never pretended to be – a Franchise Player. But the illusion had become too pervasive, and arriving in Atlanta he had no choice. He became that guy by default.
His first year as the Hawks franchise player wasn’t that much better than his last as a Sun. Numbers-wise his FG% dropped from 46% to 45%, his 3PT% dropped substantially from 48% to 36% (no doubt the Nash factor) and surprisingly, his rebounds dropped from 5.2 to 4.1 per game. On the plus side his scoring output increased from 17 to 20ppg (keeping in mind he was shooting more) and his assist numbers improved markedly from 3.5 to 6.5. But all in all, this wasn’t the dramatic jump people expected when he was given the reigns (and $70 million) in Atlanta. The Hawks were still woeful finishing with the third worst record in the league. They were barely a franchise, let alone one with a franchise player.
The next season Johnson morphed into something a little more closely resembling the archetypal “franchise player” we’ve come to know and appreciate. Someone who demands more of the ball, who makes themselves accountable, who starts putting up eye-popping numbers. Someone I once called a “smaller Kobe”. Unfortunately for Joe the Hawks were still a terrible team, which meant he was making himself accountable an awful lot. Johnson’s impressive individual season resulted in only four more wins for the team, and it was hard to deny that two years into his gig as The Franchise, things were looking bleak. The stadiums were empty, his teammates were second-rate, and on most nights he lost. No canoe.
Meanwhile over in Phoenix the Suns continued to whoop ass and make everyone believe that it was Joe who benefited from the System, and not the other way around. After all, since when does a franchise-calibre guy leave a team which continues to play at an elite level as if nothing happened?
It doesn’t happen. Because Joe Johnson isn’t a franchise player.
A couple of weeks back I watched the second half of the Hawks v Suns game live on International League Pass. It turned out to be one of the most exciting finishes of the season, Jamal Crawford hitting a long three at the buzzer to win it. Crawford’s antics didn’t surprise me (I actually predicted it would happen 30 seconds before it did, check my Twitter feed if you don’t believe me). Like I said pre-season, not many players have had more 50-point games and buzzer-beaters than JC over the years. He’s no franchise player, but he does have that uncanny ability to stand forth as The Man when it counts. Some people think he’s re-invented himself this year with the Hawks, relishing his sixth man role and carrying them home through countless close finishes. In reality he’s doing what Jamal Crawford has always done, except now he’s on a winning team, and he’s got other good guys around him. He’s got Joe Johnson.
Or has Joe got Jamal Crawford?
This is what struck me while watching the end of that Hawks-Suns game. Joe, the Franchise, didn’t score a single point in the fourth quarter. And when it came to the crunch the Hawks gave the ball to Crawford who scored five points in the last three seconds of the game (sounds ridiculous but it’s true) to steal the win. And you know what? There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. It felt completely natural that JC would be the hero on that day. He wasn’t treading on anyone’s toes, especially not Joe Johnson’s.
Because Joe Johnson isn’t a franchise player.
Most people would agree that the Atlanta Hawks are having their best season in over ten years. They will finish top four in the East, and have every chance to give the top two or three a real shake. As a team they are more complete than they’ve ever been. Josh Smith learnt how to be patient and exploit his talents. Al Horford is already one of the best centers in the East (and an All-Star, apparently). Bibby hasn’t fallen away like many said he would. No one thought Jamal Crawford could subdue that ego and become a legitimate Sixth Man of the Year candidate. Marvin Williams helps stretch the defense and continues to be a solid role player, as are Zaza and Maurice Evans.
And Joe? He is having his quietest year since his days wearing a Suns jersey. The minutes are down, the numbers are down, and now he’s not even the crunch time hero any more.
And you know what? He likes it this way, because on most nights he wins. Because Joe Johnson isn’t a franchise player.
My shot went flying hopelessly towards a forest of trees. Sam blankly exhaled, and stepped up to take the last shot for the team.
He was no Franchise Player. But on this day, he had no choice.