Friday, October 15, 2010

2010-11 Season Preview: Joe Johnson

Getting the past and future out of the way so as to discuss the present...

It's not Joe Johnson's fault that he's miscast as a franchise player nor that the organization that has miscast him lacks the resources to make up for such a mistake. Joe Johnson has been a good basketball player in Atlanta and he should remain a good basketball player in Atlanta for at least one more season. Despite that, the Atlanta Hawks have made Joe Johnson a huge problem facing the organization's future.

As for the 2010-11 season, I don't expect the same old Joe Johnson, and, if Larry Drew's motion offense takes, could conceive of something like a last hurrah for him. The primary problem with casting Joe Johnson as a franchise player is that he neither scores enough nor scores efficiently enough to thrive as the focal point of the opposing defense.

Johnson has finished in the top 10 of the league in minutes per game in each of his five seasons in Atlanta. Only once has he finished in the top 10 of the league in points per game: his injury-shortened 2006-07 wherein he need over 41 minutes a night to finish ninth in the category. Three times, Johnson has finished in the top 3 in the league in minutes played. Only once, in 2007-08, did he finish even tenth in points scored. Furthermore, Johnson just finished a third consecutive season in which he failed to post a league average True Shooting Percentage* an indictment of both the quality of shot such a great shot-maker often forces and his inability to get to the free throw line.

*TS% = (Points/(FGA+(.44*FTA)))/2

In past seasons, Johnson used his passing skills, combined with his vast amount of ball possession to earn a good number of assists which could offset his inefficient scoring to some degree. Last season, as Josh Smith moved closer to finding his intended offensive role, he essentially matched Johnson's assist rate. There no longer exists, especially considering the room for growth in the usage rates of both Al Horford and Marvin Williams, a compelling reason to have Joe Johnson dominate the ball offensively.

That could be very good for Johnson.

Imagine a player with range to 25-feet, with good size, a quick release, good vision, and the ability to put the ball on the floor without turning it over. Imagine that player moving without the ball. Imagine the opposing defense focusing not on him but a teammate. Imagine that player finding open space on the perimeter, able both to shoot over a rotating defender or to use a shot fake to penetrate the defense to create a better shot for himself or a teammate.

That could be Joe Johnson in 2010-11, a less productive, more efficient offensive player. That Joe Johnson could combine nicely with a (potentially) more productive, less efficient Al Horford in the collective effort to remain the highly efficient offensive team the will have to be to remain successful.

Have to? Yes, because of defense. And there, the short-term prognosis for Joe Johnson is far less heady. Over the last two seasons, the Hawks have allowed 5.1 and 4.4 more points (respectively) per 100 possessions with Johnson on the floor. Only Joe Smith and Jamal Crawford posted worse defensive on/off numbers with the Hawks last season and neither received anywhere near the number of minutes alongside Al Horford and Josh Smith.

The primary hope with regard to Larry Drew ditching the switching defense that Mike Woodson employed is that, with Horford and Smith more often near the basket, the team's defensive rebounding will finally improve. A secondary hope is that, without the crutch of passing off responsibility for one's defensive assignment at the first opportunity, Joe Johnson will both be initially placed in more reasonable defensive matchups and give a better defensive effort. I think that's a reasonable hope as long as the expectation is that Johnson simply stops being defensive liability rather than becoming an out-and-out good defender.

Bringing this back to where we began, I believe it will be Joe Johnson's defensive performance in 2010-11 which will provide us with the most important evidence as to when his contract will stop being a serious impediment to the future of the Atlanta Hawks and start seriously damaging the team's present.


Anonymous said...

I am officially done reading your blog following this and the ESPN Liveblog. Pessimistic and convoluted you are.- Yoda

Bret LaGree said...

Odd that it was beneath the post with the imaginative description of another good season from Joe Johnson that my native pessimism pushed you over the edge.

Of course, you'll never read this so perhaps indulgent should be added to your list of charges.

jrauch said...

So when does Joe Johnson officially become a boat anchor?

I'm fearing a Tracy McGrady-like drop off one of these years, though T-Mac's problems were mainly due to his inability to stay healthy.

Bret LaGree said...

Johnson's top 3 comps in Basketball Prospectus 2010-11 are Jamal Mashburn, Steve Smith, and Michael Finley. Jamal Mashburn's career ended in his age 31 season. Steve Smith became a role player when he moved to Portland for his age 30 season. Michael Finley fell off considerably in his age 31 season.

So, 2 years, maybe 3 if they're lucky and Johnson ages abnormally well.

jrauch said...

So to channel a Wall St. analogy, we've bought Joe Johnson at the peak of the market, and its going to be one long ugly ride down.

Next 6 years should be fun.

Course, we can chalk one of those years up to the lockout/strike that's coming.