2011-12 Atlanta Hawks Position Season Review: Power Forwards


The most controversial player from the Atlanta Hawks roster plays power forward. His name is Josh Smith. If you examined the entire Hawks fan base, I’m sure you could find people that will disagree on other players, but for the most part, these guys are who they are. For example, Joe Johnson is an overpaid, semi-star who possesses the ability to score 20 points a game, provide reasonable production elsewhere, and he’s a guy you’d never want as your best player, and I’m not sure there’s a reasonable argument to any of those points. Seems clear, right? Well, in the picture of Josh Smith, there is a wide range of thoughts and views.

First of all, it’s pretty indisputable that Josh Smith was either the best (I believe this) or the second-best player on the Atlanta Hawks for the 2012 season. For all of his flaws (we’ll get there), Smith led the team in total points (1239), rebounds per game (9.6), and blocks per game (1.7), tied for 1st in points per game (with Joe Johnson at 18.8), and was second in both assists per game (3.9) and steals per game (1.4). In a season without Al Horford for 55 games, Smith rang the bell every night, playing all 66 games, and was a big-time key in getting the Hawks to a 40-26 record. Remember this when you read the next paragraph.

The single prevailing key to the Josh Smith era is shot selection, and the greater cause of overall decision-making. Let’s examine a few numbers.

Smith’s shooting percentages have decreased over the last 3 seasons, and they are listed below:

  • Field Goal Percentage – 51% in 2009-10, 47.7% in 2010-11, 45.8% in 2011-12
  • True Shooting Percentage (TS% = a combination of field goal, 3-point, and free throw percentage combined) – 54% in 09-10, 54% in 10-11, and a ghastly 50% in 2011-12

As a comparison to how bad the 50% TS% is, Joe Johnson had over a 55% TS despite shooting a lower percentage than Smith in the conventional field-goal percentage model. What would account for this? Joe Johnson takes shots that he can make (mostly) and Josh Smith does not.

Let me throw one more round of stats at you. Here is the breakdown of jump shots vs. “close” shots (i.e. in or near the paint, and dunks), as well the eFG% (effective field goal percentage = combination of field goals and 3-pointers only) of both types of shot.

  • In 2009-10, only 36% of Smith’s field goal attempts were jump shots, and  his eFG% on jumpers was 28.5%. (This was the season that Smith attempted only 7 threes all year).
  • In 2010-11, 63% of Smith’s field goal attempts were jump shots, but his eFG% was a respectable 50.2% due to the fact that he converted on those attempts to the tune of 42.8 eFG%.
  • In 2011-12, the two converged (negatively) and 61% of Smith’s field goal attempts were jump shots, with his eFG% on those shots dropping to 38.8%.

Simply put, Josh Smith’s shot selection is atrocious and inexplicable, especially when taking a look at the data. What does it all mean? Smith’s career-high in points is a bit of a mirage, due to a career-high usage rate (26.0 up from a previous career high of under 24), and the fact that he touched the ball more because of the Horford absence doesn’t make up for the fact that his decision-making got even worse. There were exactly two players in the NBA who attempted 100+ 3-pointers (Smith attempted 109 of them, good for 145th in the league) who shot worse than Smith’s 25.7% and they were Toney Douglas and Lamar Odom. Both of whom were widely criticized (to put it lightly) for their awful seasons. At any rate, this can’t be overlooked, and neither can the lack of enforcement on Smith’s shot selection by head coach, Larry Drew.

Now that we’ve addressed that issue. Let’s quickly review Josh’s other work.

Smith’s impact in his all-court game can’t be overstated. His athleticism is elite-level, and with the length he has, he adds a shot-blocking dimension from the power forward spot that most teams can’t match. While I would argue that he and Al Horford actually do mesh well together, there’s no denying that the duo is under-sized, and Smith’s rim protection helps make up for some of that. In addition, Smith posted the highest rebounding total (9.6 per game and 10.9 per 40 min) and rebound rate (15.9% of all misses) while lowering his turnover rate to 9.9%, which is still below-average, but far better than his career rate of about 13%. Also, Smith posted a career-high 21.1 in John Hollinger’s player efficiency rating that measures all contributions to the game, and that number was good for a top-30 mark in the entire league. In short, Smith is a tremendous player who could (and should) be more tremendous if cleaned up his shot selection, and started making free throws at a rate that he’s made them before (63% in 2012, has shot better than 70% in 3 different seasons). This may be exactly the player that he’ll continue to be until his athleticism drops, but if his basketball IQ rises before that changes, he’s an unquestioned all-star.

Grade: B+ (would be an A if he quit shooting 17+ footers)

Ivan Johnson was somewhat of a revelation this season. The Hawks acquired the well-traveled forward for nothing, paid him the league minimum, and he produced at a level far surpassing any reasonable expectation from the preseason. Johnson’s averages of 6.4 points and 4.1 rebounds per game in just under 17 minutes aren’t lighting the world on fire, but if you look deeper, you’ll find some really solid rates (15.1 pts/40 and 9.7 rbs/40) with a league-average PER of just under 15. This is fantastic for a guy making the league-minimum and would be perfectly acceptable going forward from a team’s 4th big-man. There is a small issue of Johnson’s mental make-up that has resulted in his exile from several stops previously, but there were no major issues (that we know of) in 2012, and I’d like to see him retained if the contract he demands is a reasonably affordable one.

Grade: A

Power forward was certainly a critical position to the Atlanta Hawks in 2011-2012, and it will be going forward. With Josh Smith on the trading block (we think), and with the Hawks tendering Johnson and making him a restricted free agent, the position could look a lot different in 2012-13. When taking a look at the production out of the position as a whole, I don’t think you can be at all disappointed in it when you combine Johnson’s overachieving and Smith’s overall excellence (shot selection not withstanding). For all the knit-picking that most (myself included) do, I don’t think that too much more could have been asked from this position group.

Overall Grade: A-