Sunday, November 22, 2009

Why Joe Johnson is still only an All-star

Prior to the season, the basketball world was pretty much in consensus regarding the NBA's Eastern Conference: Cleveland, Orlando and Boston will finish 1-3 in some order, and Atlanta will probably end the battle for 4th place up top. However, slightly over 3 weeks into the season, the Hawks own the best record in the NBA (11-2), raising the question: Is the East's upper-echelon not as straight forward as we thought?

A longtime laughing stock, Atlanta was for years labeled a ridiculously athletic team, but too young to do any damage. After finally breaking their playoff drought in 2008, and a strong first round series against the eventual champion Boston Celtics, the Hawks won 47 games last year, and advanced to the second round of the postseason. This season, the Hawks look like they might improve their postseason record yet again. How?

A quick skim of the web will show you a lot of Joe Johnson related headlines when discussing the Hawks' ascension to the NBA's elite. More specifically, the notion that Joe has "crossed the line from all-star to superstar" is an extremely common one. But has he? A quick look at the 3 time all-star's numbers:

2007-2008 (82 games): 40:47 MPG, 21.7 PPG, 7.9 FGM, 18.3 FGA (43.2%), 2.1 3PM, 5.4 3PA (38.1%), 83.4 FT% (4.6 FTA), 4.5 RPG, 5.8 APG, 1.0 SPG, 2.7 TOs

2008-2009 (79 games): 39:30 MPG, 21.4 PPG, 7.9 FGM, 18.0 FGA (43.7%), 1.9 3PM, 5.2 3PA (36%), 82.6 FT% (4.6 FTA), 4.4 RPG, 5.8 APG, 1.1 SPG, 2.5 TOs

2009-2010 (13 games): 38:30 MPG, 23.2 PPG, 8.8 FGM, 19.3 FGA (45.4%), 1.5 3PM, 4.6 3PA (33.3%), 87.1 FT% (4.8 FTA), 5.4 RPG, 5.0 APG, 0.9 SPG, 2.7 TOs

Hmm. Those three lines look pretty similar. It is worth noting that Joe has been keeping more or less the same numbers in steadily decreasing minutes, and that he has been scoring 2 more points at a more efficient clip so far this season (higher field goal percentage, less 3 point attempts). He's been rebounding slightly more (probably due to playing more minutes at small forward next to newly acquired Jamal Crawford), and passing out less assists (due to handling the ball less, again, thanks to Crawford.) However, both his points per game and his field goal percentage are still lower than his career highs (25 points, 47.1%, both in 2006-2007). So it's not something that he hasn't done before. Is he a more efficient player? Yes. His PER went up quite a bit this season, amounting at 20.14 in comparison to last season's 18.26. But has he made the proverbial leap? No. And at age 28, he probably won't.

The Hawks have been very impressive to start the season, and are now considered by many to be full-fledged title contenders. But just because MVP voters like the "best-player-on-the-best-team" storyline (just a smart way of saying "highest-scorer-on-the-best-team"), doesn't mean that Joe is now an MVP candidate. In fact, Joe might not be the best player on his team anymore, with Josh Smith finally tunneling his vast potential into the all-star caliber campaign he was long overdue for.

So, next time you look at the Hawks and ask yourself how they got there, remember that Joe Johnson's ability, while great, is not much, if at all, better than in the past. It's the new, positive mentality displayed by Josh Smith, the continued development of 3rd year pro Al Horford, and the trade that brought in bonafide scorer and meant-to-be-a-6th-man Crawford that are pushing the Hawks up the standing, and into contention.