The 2011 season felt like a struggle for Atlanta Hawks guard Joe Johnson. After all he had set the bar pretty high during his previous five seasons in Atlanta. Perhaps expectations were too high but they most certainly were earned when Johnson signed a $120+ million dollar extension with Atlanta during last summer's free agent frenzy.
At age 30, has Johnson now started the famous decline just as his brand new extension is kicking in? The answer I have is maybe but in looking at his stats, his 2011 season might not have been as bad as I first thought. Johnson missed 10 games in 2011 which is remarkable considering he had elbow surgery in early December only to return to the lineup a mere two weeks later.
Johnson saw his scoring average drop to 18.2 points per game and his shooting percentage to 44 percent. Johnson seemingly struggled from three point range the entire season dropping all the way to 30 percent. His advanced stats showed a similar decline as his PER dropped from 19.28 in 2010 to 16.37 in 2011.
When Larry Drew replaced Mike Woodson as Atlanta's head coach, he set out to try and relieve some of the offensive burden that had been placed on Johnson's shoulders. Even after signing him to that max extension. Drew's shift from more of an equal opportunity offense took the ball out of Johnson's hands more this past season than at any other time during his Atlanta tenure.
For starters, Johnson averaged 35.5 minutes per game this season which was two and a half less than the 2010 season. That was a very important number considering that he entered the playoffs with a lot less wear and tear this season than at any other time under Woodson. Johnson also attempted two less shots per game in 2011 attempting 16.1 per contest which was also his lowest total since coming to Atlanta. So in effect he played less and shot the ball less for Larry Drew than he ever did for Mike Woodson. If there is a criticism in those stats it was that his three point attempts virtually stayed the same despite shooting the worst percentage since his rookie season from long distance. So yes it is true Johnson didn't play as well in 2011 but he also played and shot the ball less.
Before last season, I wrote that I thought Johnson would thrive in Drew's motion offense as I thought it would take advantage of his good passing ability while also taking a lot of the nightly burden of carrying the team off his shoulders. Well it didn't quite work out that way as Johnson never did seem full comfortable in the offense. There were a lot of times where he broke the offense off to go into his familiar one on one play and other times he looked hesitant not knowing whether to attack or lay back. In other words, except for a red hot month of January, Johnson looked like he was still feeling things out. Perhaps over thinking instead of just playing.
I think it is a pretty safe assumption that Johnson will never live up to the magnitude of his contract. I am not sure any player Johnson's age could play well enough for Atlanta to erase doubts about the length or the total money. With that said, the Hawks have chained their future to Johnson and Al Horford and have to hope for a more healthy Johnson in 2012. His three point shooting is concerning but we can't be sure just how much that elbow injury effected him last season. Johnson isn't exactly forthcoming with what bumps and bruises may be bothering him.
With the emergence of Jeff Teague and Kirk Hinrich in Atlanta for a full season some of the defensive responsibilities that have went to Johnson may also be taken off his shoulders. Johnson played a good bit of small forward last season and that could become a better option as he gets older depending on what other players the Hawks acquire over the course of his contract.
In 2011 Joe Johnson didn't really look like Joe Johnson. Part of that was by design and part of it Atlanta hopes was due to injury along with being unfamiliar with a new coach and a new system. Johnson was still the player that opposing teams game planned for and with more of the load going Al Horford's and Josh Smith's way, the Hawks were able to make teams pay. Due to the size of Johnson's contract, Atlanta needs him to perform at his highest level possible to retain some value around the league.