Last year over at NBAPlaybook, Sebastian Pruiti took a look at players who struggled during the season and looked at whether it was a fluke season or the start of a trend. This year, Sebastian is bringing the series to Basketball Prospectus.
Out of all the big-name guys who were part of last summer's frenzied free agency, Joe Johnson may have gotten the best contract, signing a six-year, $119 million deal to stay with the Atlanta Hawks. This past season, Johnson saw his scoring dip under 20 points per game for the first time since he joined the Hawks. Johnson got two fewer shots up per game (though his usage rate remained the same), but the real reason for the dip in scoring for Johnson was his shooting. Johnson went from posting a True Shooting Percentage (TS%) of 53.8 percent two years ago to posting a TS% of 51.7 percent last season.
Where Did He Struggle?
Hitting Open Jumpers
When looking at the numbers, you notice the percentage of makes Johnson had assisted last season increased greatly. This should be no surprise given Larry Drew's commitment to at least try and get as much isolation basketball out of his team's system as he could. Two years ago, Joe Johnson was assisted on 38.7 percent of his makes. This past season, that number jumped up all the way to 46.7 percent. It also shouldn't be a surprise when you notice that the number of possessions Johnson used in isolation situations this past season dropped as well. Johnson, who used 36.7 percent of his possessions isolating a defender two years ago, did that just 26.7 percent of the time last year.
What less isolation and more ball movement did was provide Johnson with more opportunities to do other things, specifically get shots in catch-and-shoot situations. Johnson saw his catch-and-shoot numbers jump up from being 18.5 percent of his shots to being 19.4 percent of his shots. Again, with the added ball movement, Johnson was able to get more open looks out of catch-and-shoot situations. Two years ago, 44.1 percent of Johnson's catch-and-shoot jumpers were considered "unguarded" by Synergy. This past season, that number jumped up to 50 percent.
This all sounds like good stuff, so why was Johnson struggling? He couldn't hit an open jump shot to save his life last season. After shooting 44.2 percent on unguarded jump shots two seasons ago, Johnson saw that number drop down all the way 28.6 percent as his shooting on contested jumpers stayed the same (right around 35 percent). So was Johnson doing anything different this past season or was he just missing jumpers? Let's look at the tape (the first clip is of makes from the 2010 season, the second is of misses from 2011):
One of the interesting things about Johnson's shot is that he always has had a little hitch in it where he makes the catch, brings the basketball down, then brings it back up to get the shot off. However, from 2010 to 2011, that hitch looks slightly different. In 2010, it looked smooth and it looked in rhythm. In 2011, it looked more herky-jerky and very clunky. Maybe that doesn't make a difference and it still feels the same to Johnson, but that seems to me like it is a very obvious difference that probably bothered his shot.
Can He Bounce Back?
Whether that hitch was the cause of his shooting woes or if it was something else (Johnson had a hand injury in late March, he was working under a new system all season), I still think Joe Johnson can return to his past shooting numbers and effectively return to the type of player he was two seasons ago. I just think he is too good of a shooter to let something like this get to him and ruin his career.
A combination of getting healthy, getting used to the system, and returning to his past shooting form should be enough to get him hitting open catch-and-shoot jumpers and allow him to make the defense pay for leaving him open 50 percent of the time in those situations.
Sebastian Pruiti is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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