A Substitute for War

Basketball philosophy

Defending the Atlanta Hawks and the Joe Johnson contract

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No move this summer attracted more jokes than the Atlanta Hawks giving Joe Johnson 6 years/126 million which stands as the largest NBA contract to date. Yes, Joe Johnson’s worth is closer to 80 million and once he begins declining in his early 30s while making 22-26 million a year, he could be untradeable. I don’t deny the Hawks overpaid.

But the way to judge this deal is against the alternative: Letting Johnson walk. Which I believe would hurt them just as much as Johnson’s bad contract.

The Hawks won 53 games last season and are pace for a similar record this year. Like the Hornets and Jazz, they’re on the plateau right below contention and looking for a way to make “the leap”.

Regardless of the disbelief in the team’s upside to contend for a title (which I will address later), it’s really, really hard to even get to this spot as a low 50 win team. The droughts between 50 win seasons for franchises can span decades as fans of the Clippers, Grizzlies, Warriors, Raptors and plenty other teams will tell you.

If the Hawks have come this far with the Johnson, Smith and Horford combination, why turn back? I believe Smith and Horford’s athleticism inside is the biggest reason for their success, but it’s Johnson as their offensive leader who gives the team its identity. Without Johnson the Hawks are not the Hawks, without him they could collapse like it did for the Pistons after trading Billups. They could plausibly rebuild a team just as good without him, but a bird in the hand is worth more than two in the air. If you believe a team who wins 55 games is only a few improvements away from 60 wins and arguable contention – and I do – then the Hawks are arguably best served staying on this course just for the chance at making “the leap”. In no sport is contention as brutally hard to grasp as the NBA. So giving away even a chance at “the leap” could be a mistake.

Now, the standard counter to the argument above is the Hawks aren’t near contention and have no chance at the leap. The most used argument reads something like:

Only once in a generation anamoly teams a la 2004 Pistons can win a title without a superstar

The Hawks don’t have a superstar

Thus unless they’re a once in a generation anamoly, the Hawks won’t contend

I would counter this a few ways. First, coorelation does not equal causation – especially when the CBA and rulebook both on the court and off are constantly changing. The NBA now is unique from the 90s and 80s on and off the court. But my bigger counter is this – What if the Hawks are already an anamoly? How many teams have even been a consistent 50 win team without an MVP candidate? Other than the 00s Pistons, the Pacers in the 90s, the Cavaliers in the late 80s and early 90s, the Bucks and Mavericks in the 80s. So not many, especially in the last 15 years. If the Hawks are already an anomaly, moving from mid 50s to a 60 W team does not have a precedent as impossible. They’ve already passed the historically implausible part and proven they’re weird. Difficult, yes – but it is for superstar team too as the Hornets and Jazz and many other teams will tell you.

The second big argument against the Hawks’ ceiling is saying getting swept by Orlando and Cleveland in the playoffs the last two years proved they’re nowhere near the big boys, that their mid 50 Ws status is an illusion. I’d point 2nd round sweeps against the Cavaliers and Magic actually fits in with their win totals and point differential the last two seasons. Those teams were just much better than the Hawks. But I’d also point out the lack of coaching structure on both ends in the Woodson era made them unfit for playoff success. Larry Drew is changing that. The Hawks have more of a plan defensively of staying back, which is indicated by a massive drop from 5th to 24th in offensive rebound % but an improvement from 106.7 to 104.8 in DRTG. Drew has also installed a motion offense in place of Woodson’s Johnson isolation reliant offense, which made them easy to guard in a series. Having a game-plan on offense and defense will make them much more fit for playoff success. At the very least the sample size is far too small to say the Hawks can’t perform in the playoffs.

So how do the Hawks make “the leap?” I believe by moving from decent to dominant defensively. League defense post handcheck rules is predicated on strong rotations and strong help more than man to man defense, thus athleticism and length are essential. The Hawks have as much of that as anyone in the league. Josh Smith and Al Horford are fearsome rotating under the rim, and the Joe Johnson, Marvin Williams duo are among the lengthiest of SG/SF combinations. With these 4 I believe the roster has potential to be top 3-5 defensively if not the best in the league. They haven’t gotten there yet, but Drew’s stay back defense is a sign they’re trying to. I also expect them to eventually replace Mike Bibby with a more athletic PG to complete their defense.

There’s one more reason the Johnson contract is beneficial for the Hawks franchis: Finance. This is a franchise who missed the playoffs for 8 straight years until 2008 which practically killed basketball in a previously ball feverish market. Extending the Johnson, Smith, Horford era is a good financial move and will help the franchise long term even if they never make it past the 2nd round.

On a final note, if you read my last post theorizing success in the NBA as a matter of collecting trade value, you might feel supporting the Joe Johnson trade goes against that theory. True, Johnson is now a mediocore trade asset at best and will step on the Hawks capspace for the duration of his contract. But looking closer, Johnson still has positive trade value for almost all win now teams. The Dallas Mavericks and New Orleans Hornets would pine for Johnson the most with a need for another offensive star beside Dirk and Paul. Orlando would likely be interested even after trading for Arenas, Jrich and Hedo. The Boston Celtics, LA Lakers, and San Antonio Spurs would surely show interest from a “why not, our window is literally right now – load em up!” perspective. The Chicago Bulls, Utah Jazz, New York Knicks, Portland Trailblazers would all at least take a look at, as would the Nets if they’re getting Carmelo. And the Hawks already gave him the contract. So that’s more than enough teams to confirm his postive trade value, he’s simply only an option for win now teams. For the Hawks the concern is as an asset, his value will rapidly drop sometime in the next handful of years and he will hurt rather than help them trade value wise. They have to be confident his value the next few years is worth the risk of damage it could do later. It’s arguable, but I support the deal.

Neither the Johnson deal or the Hawks future is a home run, but they’re in a good place overall and shouldn’t be counted out just because of a lack of an MVP candidate.

Written by jr.

January 21, 2011 at 1:36 pm

4 Responses

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  1. You appear to be rebutting a straw man. Joe Johnson’s contract is terrible because you have to have lots of talent to contend. The hawks will be unable to acquire sufficient talent because JJ is occupying more of the salary cap than his talent merits. Take a look at San Antonio and Miami. Those two teams are contenders largely because their stars accepted 3-5 million less per year than they were ‘worth’ on the open market, and accross 3 players that’s 10-15 million dollars that can be spent on a bench. A few years from now the Hawks will be forced into some salary dumping contracts, and the seeds of those future trades are sown here with JJ’s contract. Not to mention the discontent this will cause with other hawks wanting to get paid. How many players that are 75% as good as JJ will accept being paid 1/3 the money?

    And I’m a little confused by your point that spending 40-50 million more than you should have makes sense because of ‘finance’.

    And lastly, neither the Lakers nor San Antonio would be the least bit interested in acquiring his terrible contract, even if they didn’t have to given up anything in return (which is not legal under current cap rules)


    January 22, 2011 at 10:03 pm

    • I think you make some good point merl – on the other hand, I won’t really be shocked if a team takes Johnson off the Hawks hands. I’m continually shocked at how supposedly untradeable contracts end up getting traded. Hope springs eternal for the desperate.

      Matt Johnson

      January 23, 2011 at 7:16 pm

  2. I think you bring up some good food for thought here Julien, but I think I’d disagree with the details of your main argument.

    I think valuing life as a 50 win team is totally reasonable, particularly if you’re the Hawks who were terrible for so long, and hence seeking to protect that relatively modest success is entirely rational. However, if you’re really looking to make one or two tweaks to take things to the next level, then I think overpaying severely like they’ve done with Johnson just handcuffs your ability to make tweaks, so I don’t think the strategy is viable for a team hoping to become champs.

    One last point, were I running a team and deciding about whether to overpay for my star based on the idea that with him my team could continue to be a 50+ win team, I’d want to have a good idea of exactly what he was giving me I couldn’t get elsewhere. The last couple years Johnson actually has a negative APM. This is not necessarily damning, but Johnson is wanted primarily for his scoring, and his shooting is inefficient – I’m always cautious about assuming that inefficient #1 scorers are really crucial for their team’s continued success.

    Matt Johnson

    January 23, 2011 at 7:14 pm

  3. I think you’re reaching a bit, Julien. For me, I hate being in limbo-land. It’s only viable if free agents are coming soon. Atlanta is 11th in SRS this year. 7th last year and 10th in 2009. In that sense, they are two steps away from a title (or one superstar acquisition).

    I’m with Matt here on Johnson. My issue with the contract had more to do with the idea that JJ just doesn’t seem that good to me. Skilled player, and a scorer, no doubt. But I think giving someone who might be your 3rd-best player a contract like that IS indefensible. Will fans be there in 3 years? Mortgaging the future can be a shaky proposition.


    January 24, 2011 at 12:21 pm

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