Much of the discussion about Joe Johnson’s season has focused on his offensive surge since Al Horford went down. And rightly so: In 11 games without Horford, Johnson has averaged 21.2 points per 36 minutes with a 55.9 true shooting percentage (by the way, his 54 percent TS mark for the season ranks fifth among shooting guards playing 30-plus minutes).
With Al sidelined, Joe has made 87 percent of his free throws and 40 percent of his 3-pointers and has eight games of 20-plus points and two with 30 or more. Like all things Hawks lately, those numbers come with the caveat of competition: Since Al went down, the Hawks have faced just three opponents ranked in the top half of the league in defensive efficiency: Minnesota, Portland, and Philadelphia. Still, Joe is balling.
But Johnson’s defense has been overlooked even thought the best available objective evidence suggest he’s also having a very good year on that end of the court.
According to Synergy, Johnson has allowed just .71 points per possession, ranked No. 42 among all players. (Synergy had him allowing .93 points per possession in 2010-11 and .89 in 2009-10). This season Joe has been very good when defending in isolation (.56 ppp allowed, ranked 13th), against screen-roll ball-handlers (.69 ppp, ranked 33rd) and chasing his man off screens (.69 ppp, ranked seventh). Joe’s only defensive weakness this season, according to Synergy, has been defending spot-ups: .94 ppp, ranked 113th.
Opponent PER tells the same story. According to 82games.com, Johnson’s foes at shooting guard have posted a paltry 8.6 PER and small forwards have managed just a 12.6 PER. (The opponent PER is ugly when Joe has been at point guard but that has only been a couple minutes, according to 82games.) Last season Joe’s opponent PER was 11.6 at shooting guard and 12.9 at small forward; in 2009-10, those numbers were 15.3 and 14.4, respectively.
Joe’s on-court, off-court numbers at basketballvalue.com also are positive. The Hawks have allowed 6.24 fewer points per 100 possessions with Joe on the court. And it doesn’t appear as if his strong numbers here depend on having Al and Josh Smith behind him: Joe has been part of strong defensive units that featured Zaza Pachulia or Jason Collins at center and even one lineup with Vladimir Radmanovic at power forward.
If you want to pick at nits, you can use the same “weak opponent” argument for Joe’s defensive matchups. The Hawks have faced six shooting guards who are top 15 in PER: Dwyane Wade, Kevin Martin, MarShon Brooks, Mike Miller, Sundiata Gaines and Danny Green. Of those players, Martin (27 points on 20 shots) and Brooks (36 points on 26 shots in two games) had strong scoring games against Joe (though that’s not to say Joe was solely responsible).
Also, Joe hasn’t been able to maintain the flashes of strong defensive rebounding he’s shown. Then again, he’s raised his block rate from almost nothing last season to something this year and has also increased his steals rate a bit.
I think it’s accurate to say Joe has been excellent on offense but also very good on defense this season. Of course he’ll have to do both when the competition stiffens and stakes are higher but, so far, he’s raised his level of play just like he said he would.
Michael Cunningham, Hawks beat