Rethinking Joe Johnson And The Motion Offense

Does it all rest on his shoulders? (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

The best beat writer in the business, Michael Cunningham is back on the trail and this time offering up excellent posts about the struggles of Jamal Crawford and Joe Johnson in Larry Drew's new motion offense. Last season Johnson averaged 21.3 points per game while Jamal Crawford averaged 18 points off the bench and capturing the NBA's Sixth Man of the Year Award along the way. This season, Johnson is averaging 18.6 points which is his lowest total since he has been in Atlanta. Crawford is down to 14.2 per game this season as well.

I recently wrote at length about Jamal Crawford's struggles and how I viewed the Hawks trying to force a square peg into a round hole. While some viewed it as an April Fools joke, I was in fact dead serious. I have never viewed Jamal as a rather dynamic player. He has strengths as a scorer and as a creator but essentially needs the basketball in his hands to be successful. Just giving a player like Crawford the green light wouldn't be a successful route to take on every team but last year's Hawks made it seem like the perfect role. At any rate, Crawford has tried to adapt his play and the results have been very mixed in my view. 

"I think I should be commended for not trying to [force things]," he said. "A lot of people on their contract year take a whole bunch of shots. I've actually gone the other way."

When the motion offense was first being talked about you almost knew that it would be a tough transition for Jamal. Perhaps we didn't outline those concerns as much because during the off season it was thought that Crawford's expiring deal might be moved at the trade deadline. Jamal's struggles are one thing but it appears that I completely missed the boat on Joe Johnson whom I thought would be a perfect fit for this motion offensive concept

Injuries have played a part with Johnson who is averaging nearly two minutes less per game than he did last season but his struggles also run much deeper. Before this season I would have told you that I thought Johnson was a very capable and willing passer. Often I blamed his lack of assists on no movement from the heavy isolation system that Atlanta employed under Mike Woodson. However, we have actually seen his assist totals stay relatively the same even as the team has moved into the top five in assist ratio and in theory he has many more chances for assists now. 

Often the problem has been with Johnson's indecisiveness. No matter how he has shot the ball, Johnson is still drawing double teams from opponents and how he has handled those has had a big impact on the Hawks and their offense. For the most part, Johnson just hasn't looked comfortable. At times he holds the ball while doubled team and seems confused on whether to attack or whether to pass. He doesn't look like he understands where he can get shots in the offense and therefore settles for the first available that comes along. That could perhaps be said for the entire team as at times Atlanta looks lost in what they were trying to accomplish. The offense has failed to produce free throw attempts for Johnson who is averaging 3.5 per game which is the exact same number he averaged last season. 

The thought was that by switching to a less predictable attack, Atlanta would be more successful in the playoffs while preventing strong defensive teams from loading up on Joe Johnson. That still has an opportunity to hold true but the transition has been a bumpy one. San Antonio most recently showed the Hawks how a team executes to get exactly the shot they want down the stretch of a close game. Atlanta hasn't shown the ability to come anywhere close to that with the exception of a few last second plays out of timeouts. Its an area of concern given that at times during the second half of the season, Atlanta has looked worse running the motion offense than they did coming out of training camp which leads to the assumption that the players aren't truly buying into the concept. 

It is a major subplot heading into the playoffs and could define the future of this core group of players and perhaps the coaching staff going forward. 

Exit Question: Is it the motion offense that has caused the problems or has it been the way that the offense has been executed?

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