There were two ways for it to go down, two separate roads. Either the Nets could rack up a huge bill on their way to an Eastern Conference Finals berth or the Nets could rack up a huge bill on their way to disaster. Three years later, we know the story’s ending but in 2013 it was one of those cautionary tales that seemed too good to be true. Deron Williams. Joe Johnson. Paul Piece. Kevin Garnett. Brook Lopez. 5 All-Stars. What team with 5 All-Stars does not reach the Conference Finals?
No one thought of it as imaginary thinking. Joe Johnson was hailed and celebrated and revered. He was going to complete a backcourt that could score, make big shots, be tough to defend, and he had years of experience. The season before, in Atlanta, Joe Johnson had begun his decline. He had a career year in 2005-06, 25 points per game, but in 2013 he was a 16 point player, making $25 million because Atlanta ownership began a bidding war with themselves and ended a bidding war with themselves. It was a contract that was heavily slanted towards the player in his ordinary days whereas he could reap the benefits for doing nothing special.
Joe Johnson is not special anymore. In his first year with Brooklyn, Iso Joe continued to live up to his nickname. He was a good player but not a great one. He didn’t have the personality to lead. He shot 45% and 38% from three. With Joe on your team you agree to the bargain: take his quiet simplicity and scoring and forget all the things he never will do. All the Nets were thinking of was they had a wing who could score in Joe Johnson and they had a wing who could score in Paul Pierce.
Disaster happens when perception does not meet reality. Deron Williams was a terrible leader and it impacted his game. He couldn’t get beyond the psychic drain of the New York pressure. And he had repetitive ankle injuries. His backcourt partner, Joe Johnson, did what he always did, iso teams to death. His 16 points whittled down to 15 points and the next year, 14 points. This year it is 11 points. He is a shooting guard who can no longer shoot, 40% is the norm these days.
The Nets new GM, Sean Marks, waived Johnson and now he is free to sign with a playoff team and he’ll choose one of the contenders, the Cavs or the Thunder, particularly. The Celtics are in pursuit but that doesn’t make sense for Johnson. The Celtics are a nice story but not built to win beyond the second round. It makes all the logic in the world for Johnson to follow a team who can win. He has enough money. But the question remains, why do contenders want Joe Johnson?
He’s a throwback player to the old, slow way. Hold the ball. Survey the defense. Take a step and make your move. But the game has changed. The players are younger and Joe is older, almost 35 years old. All the shooting guards of his particular cohort, Kobe Bryant, Vince Carter, Jamal Crawford, the 35+ club have all slowed way down. Worse, none of them can defend anymore. The floor spacing that defines this generation is beyond the old scorers club ability, robbed as they are of their youthful athleticism, quickness and first step. They get beat over and over again.
Joe Johnson’s PER is 11.0. That’s a career low and indicative that he’s lost most of what made him Iso Joe. Time has finally caught up with him. His 40% shooting is the second worst of his career. He averaged 33 minutes with the Nets but only scored 11.8 points. He made 39.6% of his catch and shoot opportunities count. He drained 35.2% of his pull-up jumpers. His only positive success was when he drove to the rim but teams defended him to drive so he had to give up and pass to shooters. He could no longer finish over players. Players were shooting a holy percentage (52.6%) when Johnson was guarding them.
There is the Joe Johnson reality. The game he nurtured and grew up on and contributed to has left him behind.
No one plays like that anymore. He is, for lack of a better description, a man without a country, even as the Cavaliers and Thunder will make offers. He will fit in on both clubs, and he won’t. His contributions will be limited but all they want from Joe is to win a playoff game here and there. He is insurance for the unthinkable injury. But what no one is acknowledging through eyes saturated by an emotional past is Joe is not the same player. Even when he was a young player, he could not carry a Hawks team with Al Hoford and Jeff Teague and Josh Smith.
A long time ago, the Celtics drafted Joe Johnson then traded him to the Suns for Rodney Rogers and Tony Delk. He thrived in the Mike D’Antoni system as most scorers do. His expectations of financial reward commensurate to his output created conflicts. The Suns didn’t match an offer sheet and let Johnson walk, partly because they were not going to give in to his demands of more minutes and more of the offense.
Johnson is a quiet man who has a quiet game that has devolved, which isn’t out of the ordinary given his age and his position. He only did one thing well: score. He’s not scoring much these days and perhaps that’s the point of the suitors chase. They don’t want much out of Joe Johnson, they are already loaded. They just want that one performance, that one perfect moment still trapped inside the Joe Johnson body.
photo via llananba