Still Hoping for a Plan in Atlanta

Posted on December 26, 2010 by


Prior to the 2009-10 season I offered a review/preview of the Atlanta Hawks that was titled: Hoping for a Plan in Atlanta.  During the summer of 2009 the Hawks made very few moves to improve their roster.   So it was clear the Hawks were simply hoping that players already on the team would improve.

At the time I questioned how likely this plan would result in success.  NBA players – relative to what we see in the football or baseball – are very consistent.  Therefore, hoping that existing players would improve enough to dramatically change a team’s results seems unrealistic.

A few weeks after the 2009-10 season started, though, it was clear the Hawks “plan” had met with some success.   Josh Smith – who has never posted a WP48 [Wins Produced per 48 minutes] beyond 0.148 in five NBA seasons – was suddenly posted a mark beyond 0.200.  Many thought this improvement was linked to Smith’s decision to stop launching three-pointers.  More importantly, though, was Smith’s ability to grab more rebounds, get more steals and assists, and block more shots.  In sum, Smith’s improvement can be traced to a number of statistics, and as a consequence, Smith produced 7.7 more wins than his 2008-09 performance would suggest he would offer last year.

It was primarily because of Smith’s improvement that the Hawks were able to advance from a 47 win team in 2008-09 to a 53 win team in 2009-10.  The playoff results, though, were identical.  In both 2009 and 2010 the Hawks were swept out of the playoffs in the second round.

This season the Hawks appear to be following the same plan implemented during the summer of 2009.  As Michael Cunningham of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution noted a few days ago:

Re-signing free agent Joe Johnson was the Hawks’ only major move over the summer and there’s no indication they believe they can or should do more to keep pace in the Eastern Conference. 

General manager Rick Sund is taking the same wait-and-see approach he did prior to the start of the season. 

“We’ve improved every year; now we will see if we can get one step closer to a championship,” Sund said.

Cunningham goes on to note:  With no indication the Hawks are looking to make trades, they have to hope the current group can improve enough to make them true East contenders.

The Hawks Decline

After 31 games in 2010-11 it seems like a good time to see how this plan is working out.  The teams’ record is currently 19-12 and the team’s efficiency differential (offensive efficiency minus defensive efficiency) is 1.91.  To put this in perspective, the team won 53 games last season (a record consistent with a 20-11 team after 31 games) and posted a 4.93 differential.  So in terms of both wins and the efficiency marks, the Hawks have declined.

When we move from efficiency differential to Wins Produced we can see who specifically has declined.   

Before we get to the declines, let’s mention briefly that Atlanta’s plan is working with respect to Al Horford.  In his fourth season – and at the age of 24 – Horford is posting his best numbers yet.  But despite Horford’s improvement, the Hawks have declined primarily because of the play of Maurice Evans, Joe Johnson, and Jamal Crawford.

The Joe Johnson Story 

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.

The particular player I am talking about is Joe Johnson.  As noted, Johnson was re-signed in the off-season.  Entering the 2010-11 season, Johnson had already played nine NBA seasons.  And here are his career numbers:

Minutes: 25,794

Wins Produced: 57.0

WP48: 0.106 [average WP48 is 0.100]

Points per game: 17.6

Salary: $75 million

And here is what Johnson did last year at the age of 28:

Minutes: 2,886

Wins Produced: 10.0

WP48: 0.167

Points per game: 21.3

Salary: $15 million

Johnson’s most productive season was 2009-10.   However, Johnson will turn 30 next June.  And as I have noted in the past, NBA players age like milk.  In other words, Johnson is likely to offer to less in the future (this is one key feature of the NBA’s labor market decision-makers need to consider).

But let’s assume that didn’t happen for Johnson.  And let’s assume that Johnson could keep offering what he did last year across the next six years.   That means Johnson would produce 60.2 wins from 2010-11 to 2015-16.  How much should a team be willing to pay for this production?

If you said “nearly $124 million”, then you would be the Atlanta Hawks.  And such an amount says that Johnson – if he could maintain his production from last year until he is 34 years of age – will receive more than $2 million for each win (the NBA average is around $1.7 million).  So Johnson — if he didn’t really age — would still be overpaid.

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.

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.

So why did Johnson get this contract?  As frequently reported before, the NBA labor market rewards players who score (this is second key feature the labor market I wish to emphasize). And since arriving in Atlanta, Johnson has consistently led the Hawks in points per game. Not coincidently, he has also led that Hawks in field goal attempts. 

Once again, we see the same familiar story.  Johnson has not been a particularly efficient scorer across his career.  But he is willing to take shots.  And when Johnson’s career is over his willingness to shoot will result in career earnings that approach $200 million. 

As reported in Stumbling on Wins, though, field goal attempts are the easiest statistic for an NBA team to replace.  In other words, if Johnson didn’t take all those shots, someone else on the Hawks probably would have been willing to shoot.  In fact, given how much the NBA pays players to shoot, one imagines that almost everyone on the Hawks would love to take those shots.

Summarizing the Story

So let’s summarize the story. The Hawks plan is to hope existing players improve.  That hope has been realized in the play of Josh Smith in 2009-10 and Al Horford this season. Despite this improvement, though, the Hawks are not a top team in the East because other players are offering less (yes, players can both improve and decline). 

That suggests the Hawks will need to add better players if this team wishes to contend.  The ability of the Hawks to substantially alter their roster has been hindered, though, by the Hawks promise to pay Joe Johnson more than $124 million.   This promise is certainly driven by the logic of the NBA player’s market.  Unfortunately for fans of Atlanta, scoring totals are not the best measure of a player’s contribution to wins.  So although the Hawks were not “wrong” to give Johnson so much money, all that money going to a player who doesn’t produce that many wins is going to make it very hard for this team to contend for a title.

But that shouldn’t stop people from hoping (well it should, but let’s close on an optimistic note).  After all, that is the plan in Atlanta.

– DJ