It was a typical Joe Johnson season: he posted a well above-average (but far rfom elite) scoring rate with slightly below-average efficiency, an excellent assist rate for his size/position, committed few turnovers given his usage rate, and ended the season with a far better defensive reputation than evidence can support. If Johnson was only arguably the Hawks' best player in 2009-10 that argument would have more to do with the improved play of Josh Smith and Al Horford than any decline in Johnson's production.
With Johnson's free agency the essential variable of this off-season for the Hawks, the most important thing about his 2009-10 performance is what it might tell us about his future.
Looking at his scoring, shooting, passing, and ball-handling numbers it's difficult to argue he's improved or changed during his five years in Atlanta. He played essentially the same role essentially as well on a 26-win team in 2005-06 as he did on a 53-win team in 2009-10. Just because the Hawks have managed themselves into a cap position that leaves them unable to replace Johnson through free agency, it doesn't mean they should re-sign him.
Johnson turns 29 this summer. He's played 25,974 minutes in the NBA. The Atlanta Hawks have enjoyed the prime of his career. That prime may last another couple of years but Joe Johnson isn't going to sign a two or three-year contract this summer. Some team is going to be on the hook for the next five or six years of Johnson's career at the cost of at least $15 million per season. I think it's unlikely Johnson gets any better* but how confident can one be that he'll remain this good.
*The shape of his performance could change in a different context. As more of a finisher than a creator, for example, he could become more efficient in a lower-usage role but likely at the cost of some the volume of points he's scored and assists he's earned over the last five seasons.
Both Johnson's consistency over the last five seasons and that his 2009-10 stats remained above his career averages pretty much across the board suggest that he's a fairly safe bet to be this good again in 2010-11. Beyond that, there are some clear warning signs that Johnson, never an especially athletic player, will be forced to take a more reduced role in the offense of whichever team employs him.
To be clear, Joe Johnson is a great shot-maker and it's his ability to make difficult shots that has mitigated both his (and the offense system in which he's played's) inability to create easy shots for him. His lack of quickness and his ability to rely on his jump shot have always kept Johnson from getting to the free throw line at a league average rate. In 2009-10, Johnson's FT Rate declined by almost 25% from the previous season's (already below average) rate. JR Smith and Jason Richardson were the only two players in the top 60 in the league in scoring rate to post a lower FT Rate than Johnson.
Interestingly, this decline is not due to Johnson shooting more jump shots. The percentage of his shot attempts taken outside of 16-feet has declined each of the last three seasons. Rather, Johnson is now taking almost as many shots between the area at the rim and 10-feet as he is at the rim. In 2006-07, just one in ten Johnson field goal attempts came away from the rim but within 10-feet of the basket. Last season, almost one in five of Johnson's shots were attempted there.
|Johnson||%FGA (16'+)||%FGA (at rim)||%FGA (rim to 10')|
He's unlikely to draw sufficient contact on all those floaters and runners to get to the free throw line consistently.
Though Johnson's age and relative lack of athleticism have yet to seriously impact his offensive production, the same cannot be said for his defense. Granted, all of the data below (and most of the conclusions drawn) reflect a combination of Johnson's absolute ability as a defender and how he was used defensively. Johnson's defensive performance certainly could improve if he's no longer asked to guard opposing point guards. At the same time, it's fair to argue that the team's leader in minutes played was a significant part of said team's defensive limitations.
The Hawks allowed 4.4 more points per 100 possessions* with Johnson on the court than with him off the court. This despite 73% of Johnson's on-court defensive possessions coming with both Josh Smith and Al Horford on the floor alongside him. Only Joe Smith** (+4.8 per 100 possessions) and Jamal Crawford*** (+5.3 per 100 possessions) posted worse defensive on/off numbers for the Hawks last season.
*This is actually an improvement over 2008-09 when the Hawks allowed 5.1 more points per 100 possessions with Johnson on the floor.
**Joe Smith, for example, shared the court with Horford and Josh Smith on just 5 of the 1107 defensive possessions he played this season.
***Crawford played 42.4% of his defensive possessions alongside Smith and Horford, during which the Hawks allowed 1.072 points per possession.
|Johnson on court||1.083||5344|
|w/ Smith & Horford||1.067||3902|
|w/ Smith or Horford||1.099||1167|
|w/o Smith & Horford||1.24||275|
This table shows a few things: how central Josh Smith and Horford were to whatever defensive success the Hawks had, how much better than their backups Smith and Horford were defensively, and how little positive impact Joe Johnson had on the team's defense.
There are other numbers that support that last point. Johnson, listed at 6-8, blocked five (5) shots last season. Jeff Teague, listed at 6-2, blocked 11 shots while playing a quarter of the minutes Johnson played. Johnson drew just 9 charges in 2886 minutes played. Both of these single-digit numbers were compiled despite the frequency with which the Atlanta defense inverted itself, putting frontcourt defenders on the perimeter and perimeter players on the interior. In fact, Johnson's rate of defensive plays (blocks plus steals plus charges drawn) made per 40 minutes was lower than Mike Bibby's rate and essentially equal to Jamal Crawford's rate.
Now, Johnson is a better defender than Crawford if for no other reason than his defensive rebounding rate is more than 40% higher than Crawford's rate and Johnson surely suffered some from being asked to do something (guard opposing point guards, at least until the first screen) at which he cannot succeed. However, Johnson's overall defensive performance was not appreciably different from the little asked, little given performances of Crawford and Mike Bibby despite Johnson's greater size and strength which could have, theoretically, proved more helpful when defending after a switch.
Joe Johnson had a bad defensive season. He wasn't used optimally but the combination of that with his lack of a measurably positive defensive impact in 2008-09 as well, his below average offensive rebound rate, his sharp decline in both free throw and block rate, the paucity of defensive plays made, an increasing inability either to get to the rim or create space for a mid-range jumper, and the volume of minutes he's played calls his future into serious question. Every athletic marker in his statistical profile draws a red flag.
These are the kind of numbers that indicate a player is unlikely to translate his collegiate production to the NBA. However one feels about the validity of Johnson's current reputation, it's difficult to see how he will maintain his established level of production into his mid-30s. Buyer beware.