RealGM Basketball

Brooklyn Nets BlogBrooklyn Nets Blog

Joe Johnson Beyond The Contract

When people talk about Joe Johnson, it always comes back to the contract. He still has two years left on the monster deal he signed with the Atlanta Hawks in 2010, which will pay him $23 million at 33 and $25 million at 34. Johnson is the third highest-paid player in the NBA and his contract is as one of the most untradeable in the league. So when the Hawks pawned him off to the Brooklyn Nets, they were widely praised for getting his salary off their books.

Since the trade was made mostly for financial considerations, the Nets didn’t have to give up a lot of assets to acquire Johnson - a few expiring contracts, a first round pick in 2013 and the option to swap picks in 2015.

From a basketball perspective, that’s not much for a guy who has made the All-Star team in seven of the last eight years. He is off to a scorching hot start this season, averaging 22 points, 7 rebounds and 5 assists a game on 50% shooting.

If anything, the regular season stats obscure how much value Johnson has brought to the Nets over the last two seasons. Brooklyn, an aging team featuring multiple former All-Stars in their 30’s, was a team built with the postseason in mind, where Johnson can be absolutely lethal. In a seven-game series, Johnson’s ability to match up with multiple positions on defense and command a double team on offense can still pay huge dividends for his team.

We saw that in the Nets first-round series against the Toronto Raptors, a back-and-forth affair that came down to the final seconds of Game 7. Toronto won more regular season games than Brooklyn and they had more athleticism across their line-up, but they didn’t really have anyone who could match up with Johnson. At 6’8 240, Johnson could bully their smaller wing players, taking them down to the block and raining jumpers on them like it was nothing.

If the Raptors sent a double team, the Nets had the players to spread the floor around him and Johnson had the size and passing ability to find the open man. He was a one-man offense in the half-court, a tremendously valuable asset when the pace of the game slows down in the post-season. In 12 games in last year’s playoffs, Johnson averaged 21 points, 4 rebounds and 3 assists a game on 54% shooting. Without Johnson, Brooklyn loses in the first round.

Because they went out with a relative whimper against the Miami Heat in the second round, their season was widely viewed as a disappointment, especially when you consider how much they paid in salaries. At the same time, any team that loses its best player (Brook Lopez) for the season and still makes the second round can’t have been all bad. Their only real problem was they ran into LeBron James at the peak of his powers without a big man to fight him.

LeBron effectively ended their season in Game 4, when he put up 49 points on 16-24 shooting in a performance for the ages, carrying the Heat to a 6-point victory and giving them a commanding 3-1 lead in the series. There just wasn’t much a team without a lot of athleticism on the perimeter or size upfront could do to stop LeBron. Lopez probably wouldn’t have pushed them over the top, but his sheer mass in the paint would have changed the dynamic completely.

Even without Lopez, they would have had a fighting shot against every other team in the East in a seven game series. Given the way the Pacers collapsed over the second half of the season, the Nets would have had a real shot to advance through that side of the bracket and make the Eastern Conference Finals. Their ability to control tempo, pound the ball inside to Johnson and let him win games in the final minute would have given them a puncher’s chance.

Even as he moves into his mid 30’s, there are not many guys in the NBA who have Johnson’s ability to dominate an individual match-up in a seven-game series. Size and shooting ability are the two traits which correlate best with aging well and Johnson was one of the biggest and best shooting SG’s in the NBA at his peak. He is well on his way to a Hall of Fame career - he has made 7 All-Star teams and his game isn’t slipping much as he ages

Johnson has received a ton of criticism because he has been paid as much as guys like LeBron and Kobe over the course of his career, but that says more about how much those two are underpaid in the NBA’s economic climate. While he isn’t a franchise player in the sense that his presence on a team instantly makes them relevant, he brings a lot to the table in terms of helping his teams win and he hasn’t been on a lot of bad teams over the course of his career.

Atlanta won 13 games the year before they acquired Johnson. Their win total increased in each of his first five seasons with the franchise, peaking at 53 wins in 2010. The Hawks went to the playoffs five times with Johnson and advanced to the second round three times - they were a much better team than they were given credit for by the national media and there are a lot of franchises in the NBA who would kill for a 5+ year run anywhere close to that.

When they traded him to the Nets, it was supposed to be a dawn of a new era for the Hawks, but it hasn’t really worked out so far. While they haven’t got much worse without Johnson, they haven’t gotten much better either. They lost in the first round in each of the last two seasons and they don’t appear to be any closer to becoming a contender in the Eastern Conference. There’s a good chance they end up unloading Al Horford and beginning a full-fledged rebuild.

That may ultimately end up being the best move for a franchise that could never translate on-court success into much fan interest, but it doesn’t mean that Johnson wasn’t worth the money the Hawks were paying him. Not every team in the NBA can contend for championships - there’s nothing wrong with trying to compete on an annual basis in order to win one or two playoff series. In some markets around the league, that would count as a tremendous success.

The Nets are the perfect example of that type of franchise, as they had a new owner who wanted to make an instant splash in the New York media market. They wanted to sell out their new stadium and be relevant right away, which meant buying low on talented players like Johnson who would only cost them money. Brooklyn isn’t Atlanta or Oklahoma City - payroll efficiency wasn’t the primary concern for Mikhail Prokhorov in building a team. 

And while the Nets high-priced roster didn’t live up to the lofty goals he set out for them, it’s hard to say they were a bad investment either. Prokhorov bought the franchise for $250 million and he is reportedly shopping them around for a price of well over $1 billion. When you are talking money like that, what’s a few million dollars in luxury tax payments among friends? If you asked them again, they would re-do the Johnson trade with Atlanta every time.

To be sure, that doesn’t mean they haven’t made a lot of personnel mistakes and the decision to trade three unprotected future first-round picks for Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce could end up blowing up in their face. Going forward, the biggest concern they have is whether Lopez and Deron Williams can stay healthy. The injury woes of the Nets other stars, meanwhile, only illustrate how dependable Johnson has been over the course of his career.

In 13 seasons in the NBA, Johnson has played less than 70 games only twice, all while being a mainstay of his team’s game plan on both sides of the ball. The NBA regular season is a brutal grind that forces players to criss-cross the North American continent while cramming 82 games into six months and there are a lot of guys whose bodies can’t take it. Johnson has always been a reliable pro, a great player who shows up every day and punches the clock.

Part of the reason he is so underrated around the league is his style of play, which has always been more functional than flashy. Not many casual fans get excited when he comes into town - drop everything, we need to go the arena to watch Joe Johnson hold the ball and launch up a mid-range jumpers! However, if he had spent his career playing for a team like the Celtics or the Spurs, he would be beloved as a blue-collar star who always answered the bell.

And when you consider how much money has poured into the NBA over the last generation, it’s hard to begrudge him the $150 million he has earned. No one holds making that type of money against baseball players, mainly because their sport doesn’t have a salary cap. The Nets paying Johnson $23 million this season is like the Los Angeles Dodgers paying Adrian Gonzalez $21 million - the cost of doing business for a big-market team trying to win.

Few are talking about Brooklyn this season, but they are still a dangerous team that no one in the East is going to want to play in the first round. A large part of that has to do with Johnson, who is still one of the best wing players in the NBA. His max contract isn’t the most efficient use of resources, but there are far worse ways to spend $23 million. If the worst thing people can say about a guy’s career is he made too much money, he must have been doing something right.

Internal Improvement Candidates: Atlantic Division

Our series on candidates for internal improvement on each team in the NBA continues with the Atlantic Division, which features a lot of major media markets with huge fanbases who have had to sit through some pretty substandard play in recent years. In the last two years, the front offices in Toronto, New York and Philadelphia have turned over while Boston began a major rebuilding effort, so the level of basketball should improve ... eventually.

If there’s any hope for this division in the near future, it comes from the Raptors, the poster boys for the benefits of internal improvement. They went from 34 wins to 48 wins without making any major additions in the off-season. After dumping some underperforming veterans, they had a good young player at each position - Kyle Lowry, Terrence Ross, DeMar DeRozan, Amir Johnson and Jonas Valanciunas - and they all got better at the same time.

The group was better than the sum of their parts, as they didn’t have a weak link on either side of the ball and their combination of skill, length and athleticism at every position gave their opponents fits. Lowry and Johnson pretty much are who they are, but the ages of DeRozan (24), Ross (23) and Valanciunas (22) means they should have more room to grow over the next few seasons. That’s how you get better if you can’t bring in any marquee free agents. 

The future is murkier for the other four teams in the division, who have taken radically different approaches to team-building in the last few seasons. The Knicks and the Nets have gone full YOLO with decidedly mixed results while the Celtics have accumulated assets in the hopes of flipping them into stars and the 76ers have taken the slash-and-burn philosophy to its logical conclusion. It may take a few more seasons for it all to sort out in the wash.

- Toronto Raptors: Terrence Ross

After spending most of his rookie season on the bench, Ross was inserted into the starting line-up after the Rudy Gay trade, where he became one of the catalysts for the Raptors' surprising turnaround. He didn’t have a huge role in the offense, but he played his role well - stretching the floor, moving the ball and playing solid defense. While he wasn’t asked to do too much, there were flashes of real talent. Not many fifth options can score 51 points in a game.

At 6’6, 200 with elite athleticism, shooting and ball-handling ability, Ross has all the tools to be a big-time shooting guard in the NBA. With Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan still dominating the ball on the perimeter, he may not get many more opportunities this season, but he should be in a better position to capitalize on them. If Ross can make a leap similar to the one Klay Thompson made in his third season in the league, Toronto has a chance to surprise people again.

- Brooklyn Nets: Mason Plumlee 

Mike Krzyzewski surprised many people when he pegged his former college player for a spot on Team USA this summer. While Plumlee didn’t have a big role on the team, the experience should provide him with a lot of confidence as he enters his second season in the league. At 24, Plumlee is almost a fully-formed product, an extremely athletic big man who can crash the boards, run the floor and provide a nifty skill-set around the basket for the Nets.

He was extremely productive as a rookie and there’s no reason to think he couldn’t be even better as a second-year player. The question is how many minutes will be available for him behind Brook Lopez and Kevin Garnett. While Brooklyn is committed to starting both 7’0 at the moment, KG is clearly better as a C than a PF at this stage in his career. Either way, with so few young players on the roster, Plumlee will have a big role in their future.

- New York Knicks: Iman Shumpert 

This is a make-or-break season for Shumpert, who saw his offensive numbers decline and his role get smaller in each of the last two seasons. The question is whether his development was short-circuited by an ACL injury or whether he is best suited for a role as a defensive specialist. He’ll need to figure out an answer quickly, as he is playing for a contract extension for an entirely new coaching staff and front office that has no real ties to him.

Shumpert clearly has talent - at 6’5 210, he’s an extremely athletic guard who can stretch the floor and he ran point in college. Even if he’s still primarily used as a spot-up shooter who attacks close-outs, he could be the best two-way player on their roster. He could be one of biggest beneficiaries of a more free-flowing offensive attack under Derek Fisher, as he was mostly reduced to being a spectator in the Knicks more isolation-heavy approach in recent years.

- Boston Celtics: Tyler Zeller

While Zeller is a new acquisition, he is a good example of the type of young player whose improvement in his third season in the NBA could pay dividends for his team. With Cleveland fully committed to an ultimately doomed push towards a playoff spot, there wasn’t room for Zeller to get much playing time, especially after they acquired Spencer Hawes at the trade deadline. Nevertheless, he was productive in his limited time on the floor last season.

At 7’0 250, Zeller is a big body who packs a good amount of skill on his frame. He can play out of the high post and the low post and he has flashed the ability to knock down mid-range shots and facilitate offense. While he will never be a great shot-blocker, if he can establish himself as a legitimate defensive anchor in the post, he could secure a long-term starting position in Boston. After two years of waiting his turn, he’s got the chance to show what he can do.

- Philadelphia 76ers: Michael Carter-Williams

When Carter-Williams was healthy and playing with Evan Turner, Thaddeus Young and Spencer Hawes, the 76ers looked an actual legitimate NBA team last season. With all three of those guys gone, it’s going to be a very long year in Philadelphia, one measured more by player development than wins and losses. If MCW doesn’t let all the losing get to him, it could be the perfect opportunity for the second-year PG to expand his game and develop as a player.

At 6’6 185, he has a decided physical advantage on almost every PG in the league. He is really big and really fast and he is a handful for almost any perimeter defender. He can get to the rim, draw fouls and create easy shots for his teammates - if he can force people to respect his outside shot, he is pretty much unguardable. If he can gradually improve his decision-making over the next few seasons, both as a shooter and a playmaker, the sky is the limit.

Why Sign-And-Trades Sometimes Aren't Possible For The Incumbent Team

At the end of my Shaun Livingston piece, I put in a little footnote that had a mistake a reader thankfully pointed out. As a CBA nerd, when something like that happens I try to write it out so that hopefully others do not fall into the same pit down the line.

In the case of Shaun Livingston, it came in the minefield of sign-and-trades. At their most basic, the concept for a S+T deal is easy to grasp: the trading team must be able to sign the player to that contract and the acquiring team has to be able to receive it.

We end up focusing most of the time on the team getting the signed and traded player because there are different and more commonly used restrictions on that part of the transaction. The receiving team must be able to fit the contract in using cap space, a trade exception, or an appropriate amount of salary going back to the trading team. In addition, under the current CBA only teams under the luxury tax apron can acquire a player using a sign-and-trade with doing so carrying the added effect of hard capping that team at the apron for the rest of the league year.

This happened to the Warriors last season when they ended up adding Andre Iguodala from Denver with a sign-and-trade to retain their other exceptions.

The part of these transactions that gets far little attention focuses on the team that has to sign and then trade their player. In many circumstances, this does not get discussed because it happens pretty easily. Most of the high-end players in the league do not get into situations where this becomes relevant but we can see in this case how this strange situation can come to pass.

The easiest way to think about how a team would be unable to sign their own player to a contract is through a series of negatives:

1. They cannot have enough cap space to sign him- This one is easy. If the team has the space to sign the player outright, this part of the trade happens painlessly. In this case, the Nets are miles over the salary cap.

2. They do not have full Bird rights- There are different levels of Bird rights (Non-Bird, Early Bird, Full Bird) that all have different rules and privileges. If a player has played for three seasons with the same team without clearing waivers or changing teams as a free agent, the team has full Bird rights so they can go over the cap and tax to sign him. In this case, Livingston signed with the Nets as a free agent before the 2013-14 so he is a non-Bird free agent for them. Note that because the CBA is evil, the non-Bird status is a form of Bird rights- the team just has less flexibility than the other forms.

3. The team cannot pay the salary using an exception- This has a few different components. First, the salary has to be higher than the team can pay using an exception. In this case, Livingston is signing for more than 120% of his 2013-14 salary so the Nets cannot use his “Non-Qualifying Veteran Free Agent” (non-Bird) status. In addition, the reports are that the Warriors want to sign him to the full non-taxpayer Mid-Level Exception. Since the Nets are over the apron, they only have the taxpayer MLE available and thus cannot sign him to a contract at that value using their MLE.

In these circumstances, the original team cannot sign the player to the contract he agreed to so the transaction must occur as a straight signing. Unfortunately for the Warriors, that limits their flexibility somewhat because using part of their huge trade exception would have allowed them to have their Mid-Level to use for one or more free agents. Instead, it just becomes another interesting lesson about an intricacy of the CBA.

Jason Kidd's Great Escape

If Jason Kidd plays it right, he can be the Scott Brooks to their version of the Thunder. Kidd’s already proven he’s a more flexible strategist than Brooks, so hitching his wagon to that type of young talent could give him nearly unparalleled job security.

Identifying What Late 1st Round Big Men CAN Do

You can always find a good perimeter player in the D-League, but the best 6’10+ players in the world are pretty much spoken for. Mason Plumlee and Dieng had turned themselves into effective centers in college, but they slipped in the draft because of concerns about their age and ceiling.

RealGM's Playoff Predictions

All eight RealGM writers predict the Heat along with either the Thunder or Spurs to reach The Finals.

Two Reinventions: Previewing Raptors Vs. Nets

Both of these teams reinvented themselves for different reasons during the regular season. For the Raptors, it came after the Rudy Gay trade in freeing up Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. The Nets fixed their season by embracing small ball.

Reinvented Nets Keep It Rolling

The Nets have abandoned much of their halfcourt sets in favor of a more up-tempo pace and Shaun Livingston has been at the forefront of the new identity Jason Kidd has tried to establish.

The Eastern Conference At The Deadline

The East deals included the only two All-Stars dealt (Antawn Jamison and Danny Granger), the two best players (Evan Turner and Spencer Hawes), and the smartest player (Professor Andre Miller, PhD).

Fix It: Brooklyn Nets

Mikhail Prokhorov has invested far too much money in this team to not go down with the ship. You’re left hoping that the early season struggles will evaporate as the season goes on. This team can hope for a favorable matchup in the playoffs (if they get there) that they can take advantage of and use as a springboard to the second round.

Tyshawn Taylor Credits Nets' Coaching Staff For Development

As a second round draft pick placed onto the Nets, Tyshawn Taylor spent extensive time in the D-League, but teammates and coaches swiftly noticed his tenacious style on both ends of the floor. He’s put up four double-digit scoring performances in 14 games this season and has a growing relationship with the new coaching staff.

Brook Lopez Carries Dominance To Pull Nets Out Of Dysfunction

A year ago, Brook Lopez would always speak as the ultimate role player citing a need to get others a flow on offense, before himself. A year ago, the skilled seven-footer was pushed away from the block far too often and at times resisted constant feeds inside. No more.

A Brave New World For Los Angeles, New York

Strangely, none of the major market teams have the competitive advantage of their location and a top-flight organizational reputation. History and money are still (largely) on their sides but players have become more conscious of organizational quality in recent years.

Nets Becoming NBA's Version Of The Yankees

After Brooklyn acquired Joe Johnson, everyone decried how inflexible their roster situation had become. Since then, they have acquired Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Andrei Kirilenko and Andray Blatche. The Nets are extremely deep, with one of the most loaded rosters from top to bottom in the league.

30 Rapid-Fire Questions For Each Team's Front Office

The following 30 questions are the biggest issues facing each NBA front office as the 13-14 regular season begins.

30-Team Offseason Rundown

Great drafts for the Rockets, 76ers, Nets, Warriors, Hawks and Grizzlies headline this complete rundown of the 2013 offseason.

Why The Nets Have Become Title Contenders

The only thing crazier than Brooklyn’s reckless approach to team building this offseason is that it just might work. Championships aren’t won on paper, but if everything goes right, all the pieces are in place for the Nets to make a deep run in the playoffs and could beat the Heat using the 2011 Mavs' model.

2013 NBA Offseason Primer

With the 2013 NBA offseason underway, here is a primer on what all 30 teams are facing.

Evaluating The Risk, Reward Of Nets' Trade For Garnett, Pierce

We ended up with a quintessential Brooklyn Nets trade: flashy with big names and short-term benefits but with meaningful potential costs down the line. Fortunately for them, the team should be good enough to make those selections less painful to miss.

Leroux's 2013 NBA Draft Review

Breaking down all 30 teams by category of how they fared in the often surprising, never disappointing 2013 NBA Draft.

Older Blog Posts »


Basketball Wiretap Headlines

    NBA Wiretap Headlines

      NCAA Wiretap Headlines

        MLB Wiretap Headlines

          NFL Wiretap Headlines

            NHL Wiretap Headlines

              Soccer Wiretap Headlines