If there is anything you can count on about a Hawks loss, it’s the diverse, yet very predictable reasons offered by us fans. Many will blame their favorite whipping boy players (how does this not get old?). Some will blame the coach. Same stuff every time. But in all of this, one much maligned guy gets a break: Joe Johnson. So how much do the Hawks miss him?
With or Without You
First off, a sample size of two games is not even remotely enough to begin forecasting what the Hawks will be like if Joe Johnson is gone from Atlanta come summertime. Let’s be honest, most of us are thinking about exactly that. Rather than how many games down this, the final stretch, that Joe will miss, and the impact it could have on this team in its bid for the #3 playoff seeding. Rather than whether or not Joe will be fully healthy (and rested) for the playoffs and how that can affect this team’s performance in the playoffs. Seriously, do we want to go into the postseason for the third year in a row with a less-than-100% Joe Johnson? I know I don’t. The Hawks don’t, either. But that’s just not where the drama is. Skip all that other stuff that has to happen first. We want to know what this team could be like without Joe. So what the heck, let’s discuss a few points and/or ideas. Also, let’s remember what many of you have already stated: No team goes on without missing its best player, and the Hawks are clearly a better team with Joe Johnson, than they are without.
_ Let’s look at the two games the Hawks just played without Joe. Do they really prove anything? The Nets were easily vanquished once the Hawks got rolling. There wasn’t really much difference between that game and the other two victories. With or without Joe, the Nets currently do not have what it takes to compete with the Hawks (unless the Hawks allow it), much less beat them. That’s the most simple conclusion to come to. Not much to learn here about what the Hawks look like without Joe.
_The Raptors game, however, provided a little bit more data to work with. What does Joe bring to a game against a more sturdy opponent. You could say offense, but with Jamal Crawford around and doing his thing, Joe’s offense isn’t missed nearly as much. Really, you’re looking more at offensive substitution. Joe’s 20+ ppg are easily offset by Jamal exploding for 30+ and Bibby scoring in the teens. However, if both guys are off, Johnson is missed noticeably and sorely.
_The one thing that simply cannot be accounted for is defense. Joe Johnson is on a totally different plane defensively, when he is putting forth the effort. Jamal Crawford is trying to overcome the better part of a decade of bad defensive habits and performance. Mike Bibby is past the point of being physically able to overcome his defensive deficiencies. Jeff Teague is a rookie who shows effort, but lacks sound fundamentals on defense. Mo Evans is decent-to-good, mostly when he is allowed to guard his natural position (shooting guard). Here is where Johnson stands alone, head and shoulders above his backcourt teammates. Joe can guard the 1, 2, and 3 spots better than the rest of them. Better than starting SF Marvin Williams. Joe doesn’t play lock down defense all game, but when he gets on you, things are going to get real tough, real quick. As some of you have pointed out already, Joe’s defense against Hedo Turkoglu or DeMar Derozan could have made a difference in the game against the Raptors.
The Hawks are going to learn even more about themselves against the Charlotte Bobcats on Friday, if Johnson is in street clothes again. If nothing else, it will give us another game against a historically tough opponent, to judge what the Hawks can do and be without Joe around.
_One last thing, and maybe it should be the first thing mentioned. For all the hype and drama surrounding Joe Johnson’s free agency (and it has yet to reach its zenith by a long shot, I assure you), we cannot reasonably get a fix on what the Hawks will look or operate like without Joe Johnson. Not right now. Why? Well, is there any reason to believe that Sund will leave the team looking exactly like this? I say NO WAY. While the options are likely to be anything but appetizing, if ownership and management are in any way serious about competing at more than just a middle level, they will be making moves to recover from something they may not be able to avoid. There could be a new coach, and that impact alone could be momentous (though in which direction is the question). Al Horford could find himself at PF. There could be a new SF in town. The bench mob isn’t likely to stay the same. You just never know. So let’s save that forecast for later, and maybe try to concentrate on what’s happening now, and in the nearer future.
Josh and the Jumper
Okay, so he promised no 3-pointers, and aside from a half dozen…cough, cough…accidents…Josh has kept his promise. But what about all these 20 and 21 footers? Smith makes some, but when he misses it usually looks bad. How many of these are coming during key points in the game? How many do you feel are losing us games? Some are of the belief that Josh needs to stick with scoring at the rim, or at least very close to it. I disagree (hey, is that news or what? ), as I feel that his game has room for growth into this area. I think the problem rests in more than one category.
First of all, it’s hard to find fault with his work ethic based on how the rest of his game has come along this season. But I can’t seem to shake the idea that he is working on his jumper either with the wrong methods, wrong people, or at the wrong time. Marvin expanded his range to 3-point territory during the summer. I think Josh should work on his jumper then as well. Why? Because there is more room for distraction during the season. There are other things to work on, and perhaps building on something you’ve started in the summer is better than trying to start something during the season. Some players have the capability to do both, but I don’t think Josh Smith is one of them. But what do I know? Maybe he has been working on his jumpshot during the summer as well. I kind of doubt it, though.
Second, Smith’s athletic ability is incredible. While he’s not impossible to stop when he’s going to the basket, most teams have difficulty doing so. The problem is that when you’re playing the better teams in the league, accompanied by the better coaches….you don’t get to play the way you want to. At least not all game long. Good coaches will let you have your way, then shock you with a change in defensive scheme in the fourth quarter. Or, they may take you out of your element right off the bat, putting the pressure on another player to perform. No matter how it happens, and with the offensive sets that the Hawks tend to run, Smith will find himself in a position to take a jump shot. Most of the time it will be open, for reasons that are obvious. What better way to make a defense pay than being able to hit the mid-range jumper when you’re left open?
Third, Smith’s passing ability has finally come to the forefront, as we’ve seen this season. Becoming a credible threat when left open on the perimeter can only enhance this skill of his. If teams are forced to run out on Josh, he can then flash past the defender to the basket, or he can pass it off to a teammate who is in position to score. What’s wrong with that? Here’s another thought: If Joe isn’t in town after summer, and the Hawks get a bigger guy to log some serious minutes at Center, where does that put Josh? You guessed it….on the perimeter.
So what do you think…should Josh Smith really just leave all jump-shooting alone? What about his free throws, are his struggles there linked somehow? What’s the best way for Smith to improve his outside shooting?
TRIPLE P (Possible Playoff Preview) Part II
Another possible first round opponent for the Hawks is the Charlotte Bobcats, a team who has played the Hawks tough nearly every time for the last few years. With the Hawks sinking back into 4th place, and the Bobcats only a game and a half out of 5th, the possibility of such a first round matchup becomes closer to reality than is comfortable. The season series stands at 1 and 1, with both teams having beaten the other at home. Two games are left. Friday’s contest is in Phillips Arena, while the last one will be played in Charlotte. The Bobcats probably feel like they smell blood, and will want to make a statement by taking one on the road. However, Atlanta has jealously guarded homecourt with a record that is fifth best in the League. I don’t know about you, but I can’t wait for this game.
HAWKS VS. BOBCATS
The Joe Factor
Like it or not, we just can’t get away from talking about the team’s best player. However, there is some bad news that might actually turn out to be good…in a twisted sort of way. Fact is, Joe hasn’t played his best against the Bobcats this season. Maybe it’s the defensive concepts employed by Charlotte head coach Larry Brown, or simply the matchups against the players themselves. Either way, Joe has averaged less than 17 ppg on 12 for 29 shooting, along with about 4 assists and 2 rebounds per game. Now before you take that and run, consider that one contest was a 20 point loss to the ‘Cats and the other was a 14 point win for the Hawks. 17 points is 17 points, people. On the flip side of the coin, Joe also had most of his misses down the stretch of both games, when he was trying to make something happen on the offensive end of the court. At the same time, who now gets to defend Stephen Jackson?
Back On The Glass
I’m going to go out on a limb and say that the Hawks won’t likely win this game if they lose the battle on the boards by a differential of more than 4 or 5. When they lost to the ‘Cats by 20, they were outrebounded by 21. While foul trouble limited Josh Smith, there is no other reason for this to have happened, and the Hawks can’t continuously lean on Joe Johnson to help pick up the slack in this department. Of course, they may not even have that option in Friday’s game. In the home win, the Hawks were still outrebounded, but only by 2. Atlanta can win games like that, especially if they have a hot player on offense, a couple of support scorers, and make some defensive plays when they have to. But to win against the ‘Cats, getting busted on the boards simply can’t happen. It’s asking for a loss. To avoid this, Marvin Williams has to step up and stop lurking in the shadows, Josh Smith has to give his usual effort and stay out of foul trouble, and Al Horford needs to spend less time guarding the perimeter, while maintaining his focus in the paint. But if I had to pick just one guy who may be the main key to this, it’s Marvin Williams.
Share the Ball….Please!
This team has proven to be pretty capable with the ball, being one of the lowest turnover teams in the league. But that doesn’t seem to help as much as you’d think it would. Low turnovers don’t automatically equal high assists, and this team THRIVES on assists. You may or may not think the Hawks execute too many ISO plays, but we’ve proven we can move the ball around. The difference between doing so and not, is absolute night and day. Case in point, the loss to Charlotte included just 7 turnovers from the Hawks. Unfortunately, the assist total only came to 10. How about in the win? Well, the turnovers did more than double, increasing to 12. But the assists more than tripled, totaling 32. Could it be a mere coincidence that the Hawks also shot over 51 percent in the win, as opposed to less than 40 percent in the loss? We can argue this one all day, probably, but the fact remains that the more that ball is shared, the better the chances are that someone is getting a good scoring opportunity.
The Hawks follow this game up with another home game against the Spurs, so they could use the momentum of a good home win, especially after another road loss. Can they get this thing done, or will the surging Bobcats prove to be too much? How bad will the Hawks miss Joe if he can’t play in this game? Can Jamal Crawford continue to lead the way on offense, or will he go cold after four straight good shooting performances? Is Marvin going to show up? You know we were one trade away from seeing the uber-exciting matchup of Law vs. Teague, right?