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.