Hawks’ Ivan Johnson: A True NBA Power Forward

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I sit down in front of NBA games these days and occasionally feel like something is missing. I watch players like Dirk Nowitzki fading away from 18 feet out or Ryan Anderson lining up a three pointer and long for the days of the true power forward banging inside, dominating the boards and finding easy baskets.

When you compare the statistics of the perimeter shooting power forward with the great traditional power forwards, it’s easy to see why he is inevitably an equally attractive option. Dirk Nowitzki and Pau Gasol have career numbers that are on par with some of the great power forwards of all time and possess the ability to shoot from long range as well use their size to scoop up rebounds and create second chances.

Today’s power forward scores in multiple ways, where as the power forward of the past used raw force. Names like Shawn Kemp, Charles Barkley, Karl Malone, Horace Grant and Charles Oakley were built on running the low post with such aggression and power that breaking into the league as a power forward was a task that left a young player bruised and beaten, a lamb having barely survived an attempted slaughter.

In the league today, the traditional power forward game is still alive, but it’s mixed with an injection of softer players who rely on jump shots. Guys like Chris Bosh, Ersan Ilyasova, Andrea Bargnani, Luis Scola and others have made a living despite being defensively weak and relying heavily on their skills away from the basket.  

With Kevin Love and Zach Randolph proving to rebound masters, Kennett Faried grinding out one solid physical performance after another and Blake Griffin putting on power dunk displays like we’ve never seen, the true power forward is making a resurgence and I welcome it with open arms.

Growing up a Knicks fan, I loved the early 90s New York teams that crashed the boards with hostility and elbowed and grinded their way to victories. I respect the style of guys like Nowitzki for their skill, but quietly hope to see any player who can play the old way utilized heavily.

This is a source of frustration for me with the Atlanta Hawks. There is one of these special players sitting on Atlanta’s bench, a throwback to an era of strong box outs and two handed dunks that is being wasted in favor of a smaller lineup. Ivan Johnson is a true power player of the Charles Oakley mold and a guy who can help the Hawks address one of their biggest weaknesses.

Johnson currently averages 13 minutes per game scoring six points and 3.4 boards per contest. Defensively, he is gritty and presents a formidable force for anyone to get past, but standing in his way from forming a Zach Randolph-Marc Gasol type of partnership with center Al Horford is the Hawks game plan.

Coach Larry Drew has shuffled a lineup containing three guards at time this season with Kyle Korver playing small forward and two point guards in Jeff Teague and Devin Harris taking the floor at the same time or DeShawn Stevenson paired with Korver and Teague. This may be in part due to the fact that the Hawks have a plethora of guards at their disposal with a second line of Louis Williams and Anthony Morrow. This pushes Josh Smith, who can play either forward position, into playing power forward unless Zaza Pachulia starts, which Drew has also tried.

Even when they’ve tried to go big, the Hawks have struggled in the front court enough that they are the fifth worst rebounding team in the league. Johnson is a player who can change that by playing the role of the traditional power forward to aid Al Horford around the basket. Smith is a player that gravitates toward the perimeter at times anyhow and has attempted more than 100 three point shots in each of the last two seasons shooting around 30% in doing so.

At 6’-9” tall, Smith creates a troubling matchup for other small forwards and can guard the best of them. The Hawks don’t have a ton of front court options but can juggle Smith back and forth between the three and the four spots to fit in their smaller lineup. On top of this, by moving him to the three, Atlanta can get Smith more involved in fast break opportunities, good news for a team that is sixth in the league in fast break points.

The current Hawks setup has them ranked 23rd in scoring despite being in the top 10 of the league in field goal percentage. At 5-4, the Hawks need to shake things up in the interest of establishing different lineup options depending on the opponent.

Atlanta currently rank 19th in points in the paint due to the fact that their lineup is mostly comprised of jump shooters other than Al Horford and Smith. They don’t shoot the three particularly well ranking 19th in that as well and would do themselves a service to look for more baskets from close range.

Putting Johnson into a more prominent role is the solution to all of this and is another step in the revival of the true power forward. Maybe I’m just biased because I have a soft spot for players like Johnson. I like to see a guy that can muscle his way to a rebound and go to the rim with authority. Johnson is that type player and can help Atlanta improve. Now someone just has to convince Larry Drew.