Okay, the plan is not working. Yes, Josh Smith did improve last year. And Horford improved this year. But just as some players can get better, others can actually get worse. And it is the decline of one particular player that I think illustrates two key issues in the NBA's labor market- and also why the Hawks hope for title contention in the future will not be realized.
Sorry to bring the pain, Hawks fans, but they aren't my words, they are the words of David Berri, he of the renowned "Wages of Wins".
We had our objections to the team re-signing Johnson because of the long term effects of the deal, but hoped--as a silver lining--that at least the team be able to milk another year or two out of his prime, despite the statistical evidence of the career paths of comparisons Michael Finley and Jerry Stackhouse.
Not so fast, ATL:
So far this year, though, Johnson is only on pace to 3.7 wins. Now Johnson has missed nine games due to injury. If he was on pace to play as many minutes as he did last year -but still offered the same per-minute production as this year - then Johnson would be on pace to produce 5.1 wins. And for that production, he will be paid $16.3 million.
Berri runs a chart in the piece that shows this projection, and the results are scary enough for this season. But Berri also delves into the goriest part of the Hawks future.
That annual salary figure will only increase going forward. In 2013-14, Johnson will be paid more than $21.5 million. And again, it seems unlikely Johnson will be that productive at the age of 32. But despite this expectation, Johnson is scheduled to receive $9 million more than Al Horford in 2013-14.
Beyond 2013-14 the story gets even worse for the Hawks. In 2015-16 - when Johnson is 34 years of age - he will be get paid more than $24 million. Again, if he offered 10 wins at that age - or what he did last year - he would still be overpaid. Given how players age, though, it is likely Johnson will actually offer much less.
It's not all doom and gloom, though Berri does posit that the Hawks will not be able to reach any kind of championship goals with Johnson gobbling up the cap and offering lessening returns.
Al Horford is shown as a beacon of light on the horizon of the Hawks future, showing massive improvements across the board. He and Josh Smith are shown in his chart to be in position to positively affect more Hawks games than anybody on the team.
But, as we have noted, and Bret LaGree notes as well this morning over at Hoopinion, the team doesn't seem to care about details like "efficiency" and "results". From LaGree's comments area:
This team's been essentially the same for three seasons. The tenured guards are not going to get any better at their ages, Smith looks like he's maxed out his ability to make use of his talents, Williams and Teague aren't getting enough extra touches and minutes to leverage their apparent improvement, and Horford, though he's blossomed into one of the top 15 players in the league, remains fourth in the team in usage and third in minutes.
Even using their preferred analytic methods, the Hawks brain trust appears to lack the ability to reconsider players as they develop or age. That's how you lose Josh Childress for nothing, how you acquire cheap, old reserves for their past reputations rather than present abilities, and why young players don't get a fair chance at a spot in the rotation.
At this point, the franchise is more interested in their own personal Dewey Decimal system to organize and define players. File Horford under "useful", Josh under "must play", and The Backcourt as "shotmakers". And let's never discuss the possibility of these definitions changing (see Childress, Josh).
All of this is not to say there aren't genuinely great things to hope for and cheer for the Hawks. On the contrary, there are all but one team every year who has to watch theirs fall short of the prize. The Hawks have two of the best front court players in the game...All-Star level ballers in their mid-twenties, and they are worthy of all the oooohs and ahhhhhs we can muster.
But I, and others as shown do as well, understand the boundaries that this franchise has always put themselves inside of and now locked themselves into with Joe's contract. We'll keep watching and hoping for the statistical anomaly that will allow this team to reach heights that this franchise hasn't seen since its move to Atlanta in 1968. But as this study shows, and as the team refuses to adjust its own paradigms, such a happening would be more miracle than expectation.