Wednesday, May 20, 2009

2008-09 Season Review: Joe Johnson

Another All-Star Game appearance, another top four finish in total minutes played, another year Joe Johnson was simultaneously overused while being the team's best and most productive player, and, most importantly for the franchise, another year closer to free agency.

It's the second item above that leads me to worry about the final item. I think Joe Johnson has peaked, I think that at his peak he was a fringe All-Star, and I think that the Hawks, by signing him to a contract extension, would only compound the error of acquiring him at great cost in the belief that he could be a franchise player. Then I'll take a moment to think about Chris Paul, Deron Williams, and Brandon Roy each of whose potential value was marginalized in the minds of the Atlanta front office because they already had Joe Johnson.

Contrary to popular belief, Joe Johnson didn't come to Atlanta for the money. The Phoenix Suns would have paid handsomely to retain his services. Joe Johnson came to Atlanta for the shots and he has no interest in giving those shots up to the younger players who will need to take on greater responsibility if the Hawks are going to make any progress toward contending for the Eastern Conference title.

Allow me to again piggyback Mark Bradley's reporting:
Johnson isn’t a ball hog – he led the team in assists, ahead of Bibby – but he’s the focal point. You can be a focal point if you’re LeBron or Kobe or D-Wade, but Johnson isn’t quite. The Hawks would be better served if he played fewer minutes – he led the NBA in those – and took fewer shots.

Would Johnson be amenable? “I would,” he said Tuesday. “But I don’t know if that’s going to be the case. I have a passion and love for the game. Sometimes the coach tries to take me out, and I tell him to leave me in. It’s not that I’m selfish – it’s just my passion for the game.
(NOTE (4:52pm): I may have mis-interpreted this quote. If Johnson's responding simply to the first part of Bradley's supposition ("fewer minutes") rather than implying that he's going to be on the court and if he's on the court he's going to take the majority of the shots the meaning changes.)

Over the course of his four seasons in Atlanta, Johnson has increased his reliance on shooting the three-pointer as his ability to make two-point baskets has slipped significantly. Considering Johnson's inability to get to the free throw line (Despite making 82.6% of his foul shots last season his free throw rate was 10% below the league average.) the numbers confirm the eye's suspicion: Johnson (In addition to his below average FT Rate, both his 2PTFG% and 3PTFG% were below the league average last season.) is not a viable first option for an NBA team with ambition.


Which isn't to say that Johnson is an average player. He's averaged over five assists per 36 minutes over four seasons with the Hawks and his turnover percentage has decreased every season in Atlanta, mitigating some of the cost of him missing more shots.

So, what to do with Joe Johnson? Trade him? That option shouldn't be ruled out categorically (nor should it for any player on the roster) but I'm far less intrigued by that idea than I was at this time last season. My preferred option is for the Hawks to retain Johnson and use his skill as a passer and shooter to ease the transition to an offense built, for next season at least, around any of Johnson, Al Horford, Josh Smith, and Marvin Williams depending on matchups. None of those four are legitimate number one options circumstances be damned, but each can pose problems for defenses in the right circumstances, and, were they to work in concert rather than as master and apprentices, the Hawks might could make the leap from a slightly above average offense to a good offense.

There's great risk to all of this, the greatest being that there's no evidence that either Mike Woodson or Joe Johnson think there's any reason to change the team's offensive philosophy. Even were Woodson to make a significant course correction with the offense Johnson might bristle at the efforts to diversify the attack, perhaps scuttling some of the trade value he and his expiring contract might possess. But, if the worst case scenario involves another season of above average production from Joe Johnson and $15 million of cap room again next summer, the likelihood that the Hawks can build a championship contender without taking a significant step backward increases.


jrauch said...

Bret, as great analysis of J-J-J-Joe.

I'm beginning to wonder how much of the team's glass ceiling is self-imposed by Joe's unwillingness to cede some of those "I'm the alpha dog and I'll dribble for 20 second per possession" tendencies.

A real leader doesn't need the ball to lead.

Bret LaGree said...

To be fair, Joe rarely dribbles for 20 seconds in a single possession. It takes a good five or six seconds for Bibby or Flip Murray to dribble the ball up the court before handing it to Joe 25 feet from the basket.

Bret LaGree said...

And I don't really begrudge him that much for wanting to play a ton of minutes and take a ton of shots. It's the coach's job to channel any player's drive to excel in a useful manner.

jrauch said...

Well, we've got a coach who's an enabler of those habits, rather than someone trying to channel it into something more useful for the team.

What amazes me about Joe is when he does get a little fire in his belly (ie: After the Delonte West elbow) and plays with a little more passion, he gets to the rim, hits jumpers, does all the things you'd expect the "alpha dog" to do.

I really don't think any of his limitations are physical, which you can't say for a lot of NBA players. Its all mental.

He doesn't have the attitude necessary to be "the man."

Justin DeFeo said...

"Johnson is not a viable first option" -- You're just learning this now?

Bret LaGree said...


Feel free to check the archives, or, if that's too vague for a quick wit such as yourself, just click on the link within this post to last year's season review.

Rick said...

WOODY HAS TO GO! This ship is rudderless! The players are suffering as a result of Woodson's apparent passivity. The players get moderately better of their own volition. The young guys (Josh, Law, etc) should be better than they are. They win despite Mike's coaching. Bibby knows it and I doubt he will be motivated to stay. Joe or no Joe, Woody's got to go! (sorry that just kind of wrote itself)