Sunday, June 24, 2012
Once More, With Feeling: Reviewing Joe Johnson's Season
The second season of Joe Johnson's second, more ridiculous contract with the Atlanta Hawks demonstrated some practical understanding of his strengths and limitations. Up to a point, it was as good a season as could reasonably expected from Johnson at this stage of his career. That point was the playoffs.
During the regular season, Johnson, presumably recognizing his increasing inability to create high-percentage shots for himself or for teammates, demonstrated a greater willingness to finish rather than start possessions and he finished possessions from behind the three-point line more often (per minute and as a percentage of his field goal attempts) than in any previous season in Atlanta. The result of his slightly smaller role in the offense: significantly more efficient scoring at the cost of some assists. A fair trade.
With Mike Bibby and Jamal Crawford replaced in the rotation by Jeff Teague and Kirk Hinrich, Johnson was no longer burdened with futile defensive assignments. Johnson took on a role more suited to his lack of athleticism and general defensive passivity. He stopped fouling almost completely (committing a little more than one personal foul every 36 minutes and committing more than three personal fouls in a game on three occasions, one of them being the triple overtime loss to Miami) and let his already poor defensive rebounding rate shrink to 9.2%. Neither of these prevented the Hawks from improving significantly defensively, suggesting that reducing Johnson's defensive role was a net positive. He even had a (relative) shot blocking explosion, rejecting 13 shots in 2127 minutes after blocking just 12 shots in more than 5400 minutes during the previous two seasons combined.
Despite the positive results, all this sensibility regarding Joe Johnson disappeared in the playoffs. Injuries didn't help matters but, even at less than 100%, Josh Smith and Al Horford clearly looked superior, outplaying the overextended Johnson in the playoffs. That's old news. In a new development, Jeff Teague joined them in outshining Johnson.
Johnson repeatedly failed to create good shots for himself or his teammates while struggling to chase Paul Pierce around screens for much of the series. Yet it was Johnson, dribbling nowhere good against a set defense to which the Hawks turned again and again until elimination. It was the worst of Johnson's five mediocre-to-poor playoff performances as a Hawk.
The series also re-raised the question of whether the limitations Johnson's contract has put on the team from a player personnel standpoint will continue to carryover onto the court. There are now three younger teammates (Smith, Horford, and Teague) capable of making Johnson a more effective player the more they are on the court, the more they have the ball in their hands. The Hawks are overpaying Joe Johnson to be an above average player. The overpayments* will continue after Johnson has ceased to be an above average player. The team must get maximum value out of him while there remains value to be had.
*Since Rashard Lewis was traded again this week, a word regarding untradeable contracts: untradeable contracts become tradeable once another team is in possessions of a contract (or contracts) as large, but longer than the one you want to get out from under. Joe Johnson's contract has four years to run and more than $89 million due. Also, unlike Lewis, Johnson's contract is fully guaranteed.