Joe Johnson is Fading

It is the science of the NBA. Facts explain truth. Truth tells the story. The story is always the same. For veterans who made their name in the league by being specific in their intent and extraordinary in their accomplishments, they arrive here. At a place they never thought they would get to. As recently as a week ago, Kobe Bryant said, “I thought, it’s never going to end.” But it does, it always does. For 14 year veteran shooting guard, Joe Johnson, for iso Joe, for All-Star Joe and Little Rock Joe, the end is getting closer and closer.

We know this much. His end with the Nets is here as he was waived by the club this morning. His final Nets tally: 288 games. 97 wins. 124 losses. A coach fired. Two first round playoff exits. 43.2% shooting. 37.8% three point nirvana. 993 assists. 1,096 rebounds. 4,240 points.

When Kobe Bryant kicked off his last trip to NYC, Johnson had his first good game of the season. He took the most shots so far, 16, and shot 50%, the second time he had done so. It was his first 20+ game of the season. He had bored the league with the stat line of 11.8 points. Since that game in November, Johnson has sprinkled in 6 more 20+ games out of 57, all the evidence you need that Joe Johnson is trending towards invisible.

But it hardly mattered since the Nets are a team of aging or mediocre veterans. Standing out like a sore thumb was Joe Johnson because of how ordinary he had become, and unlike Bryant, he was never serenaded as extraordinary once upon a time. As he fades, he does it the way Johnson has done everything in his career, quietly, no one noticing.

Before he was waived, things were grim for iso Joe. He was buried on a team that didn’t have much to work with and their future is grim, except for the fact that the have a new, 40-ish GM who plans to instill a new culture as he tries to put distance between his ideas and Mikhail Prokhorov’s insistence that the Nets be a contender right now with their garbage roster.  The Nets point guard is out for the season and before he screwed his knee up he was playing the point because he had to. He is really a shooting guard. The Nets center is capable but not someone you build a team around. Their shooting guard is a rookie. Their power forward is good not great. And they have no first round pick this year as it is going to Boston in the Kevin Garnett/Paul Pierce deal so at the end of this season of low expectations, there is nothing.

Even when he came to the Nets, Johnson couldn’t escape the wrath of a contract that was ridiculously laughable. It wasn’t the money, per se. But that he did nothing to earn it. It thrust Johnson into the narrative of athlete who steals other people’s money. It wasn’t fair to him.

It was a bad business negotiation on the part of Atlanta Hawks ownership because the organization was bidding against themselves, and then, they were punished for their lack of business logic. The Hawks were only able to move Johnson to Brooklyn because the Nets were in a win now mode with Deron Williams.

Deron Williams is gone, fired from the Nets, paid off. Joe Johnson is gone, fired from the Nets, paid off. What does that say about the management of the Nets, who mostly have been demoted.

What exactly is Johnson now?

Like Bryant, he is in a league that doesn’t acknowledge or legitimize the way he plays. The iso scorer is at the end of the life line as 3-point specialists or pick and roll shooters are coveted. Ball dominant guards can win a few games here and there but once they reach thirty they don’t have a place unless, like Bryant, they are one of the gifted. Joe was never that. He was a star guard scorer but he never carried his team anywhere. For players like Joe, it quietly comes to a close like this.

Where will he play next?  Both the Cavaliers and Thunder want him. The Cavaliers seem like a prime landing spot. All they do is hold the ball for incessant dribbles. What’s one more iso scorer? Though, Ty Lue’s plan to play faster doesn’t fit in with the Joe Johnson complex. Joe has always taken his time and played slow.

Joe Johnson was drafted by the Boston Celtics. He was a lottery pick out of Arkansas. The Celtics traded him to the Suns for Rodney Rodgers and Tony Delk.  Johnson was a rotation player for the Suns on their glory year Steve Nash teams but Johnson wanted a larger share of the offense which made sense but it had its detritus. It gave Johnson what Bryant always had, this idea that if you want to be you, if you demand it, then you are selfish. The Suns didn’t match an offer sheet from the Atlanta Hawks.

Johnson became a NBA star in Atlanta, a scorer, a go-to-player, a winner who was given the nickname iso-Joe because of his isolation plays where the rest of the team would clear out and let Joe go to work. It made him and his team very successful and it kept him and his team from becoming a bona fide contender. The league began to change around 2009. The iso game was on life support as more teams embraced the quick ball movement and floor spacing of Johnson’s former coach, Mike D’Antoni.

For the Bryants of the world, they could survive. They were superbly gifted, other-worldy. But Johnson found himself squeezed. Once he got to Brooklyn, he was a scorer who once upon a time led a team. No more great moments on the big stage were coming his way.

But he had his money and he had a contract that confused just about everyone. The Hawks dug a grave they had to fling themselves into. Getting rid of Johnson was the only way to breathe again. The Hawks, without Johnson, are better than they ever were with him. It is a sad fact that Johnson, who brought resurgence to Atlanta basketball, could not play in their offense today. The game has changed. Joe Johnson has not.

Which leads us back to Johnson and his future. There are not that many days left. He will be deprived of a farewell tour because he wasn’t that great and he never was exceptional. If he lands with a contender, he may get a ring out of it. Mitch Richmond got a ring while sitting on the Lakers bench in 2001; it happens and is nothing to roll your eyes at. Joe Johnson has paid his dues. He has been hugely disappointing and he has been disappointed at the sad Brooklyn turn.

A quiet man who was never a superstar, Joe Johnson was never arrogantly loved or disgustingly hated. He was accepted, cheered for, written about, and on a bad team, forgotten.

We know the end is at the doorstep for Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Kobe Bryant, all champions leaving to ovations. But Joe Johnson will leave the way he came in, a silent man whose game faded. Every now and then, he is treading water. But perhaps, before his last chapter is written, there will be a NBA title waiting for iso Joe.

photo via llananba