Back in January, the Hawks hosted blogger night. A group of us made excuses at our part time jobs, told our moms we would be missing dinner, and found our very best Al Horford jersey to wear to the game. Ok fine, I was the only one wearing a jersey. But during halftime, Rick Sund came into our suite and answered questions without really answering them. He treated us like we were small time bloggers, and I loved every second of it. Somehow every question came back to how he was in the process of evaluating the team. Needless to say I was impressed with his ability to take us seriously without taking us seriously at all.
But amidst the long and varied ways of saying he was evaluating the team, Sund mentioned that only maybe five players have reached their full potential. Mike Bibby, Zaza Pachulia, Flip Murray, Mo Evans, and Joe Johnson.
I cannot say I disagree much with his assessment. Those players may get craftier and a little more nuanced in their game, but there will not be any more leaps forward. It all seemed pretty basic to me so I never gave it much thought at the time, but as the off season hit home, the idea of a full realized Joe kept bouncing around my head.
I think we can, for the most part, agree that we know what we are going to get with Joe Johnson. That he is a borderline all-star (more in the country of all-star than not) who is a durable, very good defender, and can score in bunches when he gets a bunch of shots.
If Sund is correct, he is never going to rise much further than what he is now. Which is not a knock. Most players in the league do not even know what direction the border of all-star is let alone are near enough to straddle it. But it raises the question, if a player is close to his full potential and in the final year of his contract, should the Hawks look to trade that player while his value is high?
Put another way, what would happen if the Hawks traded Joe Johnson?
I am not a Joe Johnson hater. I love him as a player. Love what he has done to lead the Hawks out of the low point that was that 13 win season. I have never once questioned brining Joe to Atlanta. I certainly play the "what if" game in regards to those two first round picks the Hawks gave to the Suns, but if someone could prove Phoenix was matching without that compensation, I would do the exact trade again. Joe came and led this team when no free agent was up to the task.
That said I have begun to think in an ideal world where the NBA made bold moves regularly, trading Joe might be just what the Hawks need.
The Argument if the Hawks keep Mike Woodson
I do not like Woodson's offense, but if anything has been made clear over his tenure, it is what it is. We should not expect some major new wrinkle come next season. Woodson likes isolations and one on one play. He believes if his players execute they can get the shot they need. For the coach, the game is always established on the defensive end, and then a few players just need to make enough plays on the offensive end to win. Hope you hit your shots. That is Mike Woodson offensive basketball.
The Hawks therefore needed Joe when the team was very young. They needed a guy who knew how to score and had the skill to do it. With Josh Smith, Al Horford, and Marvin Williams slowly but very steadily improving their offensive game, the need to rely on Joe is not quite what it once was.
Still, the Joe Johnson role has gone unchanged. He still gets the most shots, the most isolations, the most sets. Yet he very well may be the least efficient of the four. He has the lowest fg% of the four, shoots around the same amount of free throws, and his PER is only 2 points higher than the low man Al Horford.
It is not that I think the Hawks would be better without Joe Johnson, but that Marvin, Josh, and Al would have an easier time growing into their potential if they were allowed more touches on offense, and in the end, that change may lead to a better Hawks team than the one with Joe on it. The fact of the matter is Marvin, Al, and Josh have more overall upside, can get to the line more often, and have the athleticism and position to hit a higher percentage of their shots, and as long as Joe Johnson and Mike Woodson are here, the large majority of the offense is going to ignore these facts and go through our all-star.
The Argument if the Hawks fire Mike Woodson
The three players I have been referencing against Joe Johnson are all at their best in an up tempo game. They are long, athletic guys, who can run and finish at the rim. Sometimes Al Horford gets so tired of the half court he starts his own fast break. Josh Smith sadly does the same thing.
Joe of course has shown he can thrive in such a system. It got him a large contract from us coming out of Phoenix. Plus, anyone who has ever seen his pull up three in transition knows why some (ok me) call him Joe "freaking" Johnson. Sadly though, if anyone has ever seen him finish on the fast break, they also know he is not and should not be the leader of these breaks. In a fast paced offense, Joe is a terrific third option, but he is no longer the first option. I do not know any Hawks fans that say get the ball to Joe on the break unless he is camped out at the three point line.
Joe is methodical. He might have the slowest drive to the hoop in basketball. The man probes. He sets things up. He likes using 20 seconds of the shot clock. It works for him, and it keeps Woodson from needing to even think about a second option for 60 percent of the offensive possessions.
But if Woodson were to be let go, I would hope the Hawks would bring in a coach with a style of offense that was a change from Woodson. You fire a coach to move the team in a different direction. No just because of a difference in opinion on substitution patterns.
In this sense, it makes sense to question where Joe would fit in such an offense and if his trade value out weighs his value on the court then you have to start asking some tough questions.
Joe Johnson is an unrestricted free-agent in 2010. That leaves only this year guaranteed with the Hawks. A year from now Atlanta will either decide to live and die the next five years with Joe Johnson or lose him for nothing.
On the other end of things, it was clear through injuries and the max eight man player rotation throughout the year, the Hawks need more depth. With free agents, the Hawks have real need at the point guard, two guard, and center position. Moreover, starting this summer with Marvin Williams and especially in two years with Al Horford, the Hawks must ask tough questions about where they plan to invest their money.
All of these guys will not stay on the Hawks. Right now, of the players mentioned, Al Horford and Joe Johnson probably have the highest trade value. With multiple areas of need, a trade might be the easiest way to fill more than one hole with only one move. No one wants to see players they have grown to love leave, but in the business of the NBA, the Hawks need to do what is best for the team.
Rick Sund must be done evaluating. The direction needs to be set, and that means looking to make decisions not just one summer at a time, but make moves with five years from now in mind. Sund could go any number of ways. He could trade any number of players.
But if I was running the Hawks, I would look long and hard at where Joe Johnson fits into the plan 4 years from now.