Atlanta Hawks: Has Losing Joe Johnson Made Them Better?
When Joe Johnson was traded to the Brooklyn Nets this summer, many people thought the Atlanta Hawks would be worse for wear without him. He had been the leader of the team ever since his arrival in 2005 and the thought of the Hawks without Johnson just didn’t make sense. He was a steady All-Star and he made a few All-NBA teams in his day. Without him, it felt like the Hawks were doomed to fade away in the Eastern Conference.
It ended up being the other way around. Not only are the Hawks still one of the better teams in the East, they’ve actually improved significantly. Many consider them to be the second-best team in the conference, after the Miami Heat. Stars like Josh Smith and Al Horford have picked up the slack, while newcomers like Kyle Korver and Louis Williams have also contributed significantly and the Hawks have kept their engines humming just fine without Johnson.
So, what does this tell us? Well, it might tell us that the Hawks are a deeper team than we realized and that Larry Drew is a very good coach. But what does it tell us about Joe Johnson? It tells us that he’s a little bit overrated and that he’s coasted on reputation more than any of us have realized.
Johnson got a lot of credit for the success the Hawks enjoyed during his time with them, but have we considered how consistently strong the supporting cast was? After a few weak years to start, the Hawks took off when they drafted Al Horford with the No. 3 overall pick the 2007 draft.
They would go on to make the playoffs that season and have made them every year since. In that time, Horford became one of the best centers in the league, becoming an All-Star in 2011. Considering the Hawks’ first playoff trip started with Horford’s arrival, is it worth considering that he was more responsible for the team’s success than Johnson was?
“But, wait,” you say!
Horford was hurt last year and they still got in, so there goes that theory, right? Well, maybe, but let’s consider who carried them; the other frontcourt players who did an excellent job of picking up the slack in Horford’s absence.
Josh Smith had the best season of his career last season, while Zaza Pachulia did an excellent job of filling in for Horford as the starting center. Smith and Pachulia were able to make up for a lot of the things the team was missing without Horford. One would be tempted to think it was Johnson’s scoring that kept the Hawks in the top eight, but really, it had more to do with their big men being able to fill the gap left by Horford by improving their own play. Johnson didn’t have to do anything more than he normally did.
But none of that is what’s really important. What matters is, Johnson is considered to be one of the best in the game, but if you look at his numbers, it’s hard to really see why. Sure, he scores at decent clip, and he’s a pretty good passing two-guard, but his efficiency? Not quite as high as you’d expect.
Consider his win shares per 48 minutes. This a stat that essentially measures how much a player actually contributes to his team’s chance to win over the course of a full game. The average for the league is roughly .100. Johnson’s career number is .096. Admittedly, he was better than normal last year, putting up a solid .145, but the year before that he only had .080, well below the robust marks put up by Smith and Horford.
What this tells us is that Johnson doesn’t contribute to his team’s success as much as we might initially think. He takes the most shots, so we see him as the leader, but more often than not it’s the guys around him who make him look like a great player. There isn’t as much to his game as we think there is.
That’s why the Hawks been just fine without him. The combination of Williams and Korver more than replaces the offensive output of Johnson and since neither player demands the ball as much, the offense has run smoother in his absence. Meanwhile, Johnson has had his share of growing pains in Brooklyn, as he got off to one of the worst starts of his career. He’s improved greatly in subsequent weeks, but he still hasn’t played like a perennial All-Star.
Rather, he’s been the same kind of player he’s been his whole career; an above-average but overrated two-guard who is great when he’s on his game, but who can submarine your whole team when he isn’t.
The Hawks got rid of Johnson and his albatross contract because the Nets were desperate. They needed a marquee player to sell to the fans and they needed to give Deron Williams a reason to stay, so they bit the bullet and absorbed Johnson’s exorbitant deal.
Meanwhile, the Hawks have moved on and they look better off for it. They have a slightly better team than they did last year and they got rid of one of the most overpriced and overrated players in the league in the process.
John Hugar lives in Buffalo, where he is finishing up undergraduate work at the University at Buffalo. His work has appeared at 3 Shades Of Blue, The Classical, and Bleacher Report. He's been a Grizzlies fan since day one, during their time Vancouver and Memphis.