The blockbuster deal that saw Joe Johnson traded to the Brooklyn Nets was one of the few NBA trades where both teams, and their respective fans, were reasonably happy. The Nets acquired the big name they desperately needed to kick off life in The Big Apple with a bang.
Just as importantly, the trade proved to be the clincher as far as Deron Williams re-singing with the team. Williams spent months torn between re-signing with the Nets, and signing for his hometown Dallas Mavericks. The ambitious trade for Johnson sealed the deal.
From the perspective of Hawks’ fans, the trade was viewed as nothing short of a miracle. Johnson’s ridiculous contract, of which he had four years and around $90 million still remaining, was seen as untradeable. However, new G.M. Danny Ferry worked his magic and sent Johnson to the one team that wouldn’t have a problem paying through the nose. Mikhail Prokhorov has deep, deep pockets.
By shedding Johnson’s crippling contract, the Hawks are finally able to begin a much overdue rebuilding process. They had hit their NBA ceiling—good enough to make the playoffs, and sometimes even the second round, but never good enough to roll with the big boys of the Eastern Conference.
Can the same be said about Johnson and his respective NBA ‘ceiling’?
If you could use one word to sum up Joe Johnson’s time in Atlanta, it would be ‘frustrating.’ When Johnson signed with the Hawks, after asking Phoenix not to match Atlanta’s offer, the team was a mess. They had finished the 04-05 season with the worst record in the NBA, 13-69, and were genuinely awful. Johnson’s arrival led to an upturn in fortunes for the Hawks, culminating in the team making the playoffs as an 8th seed in 2008—the first time the Hawks had made the postseason in nine years. They took the eventual champs, the Boston Celtics, to seven games.
Everyone remembers Johnson’s 20-point 4th quarter in Game 4 that tied the series at 2-2. That was Joe Johnson at his absolute best; hitting trifectas, fade-away jumpers from ridiculous angles, and showing a level of aggression in the lane that wasn’t always seen during his seven years in Atlanta.
The rest of Johnson’s time with the Hawks settled somewhere in-between that high against the Celtics, and moments of ‘pull your hair out’ frustration. Johnson was consistent, there’s no doubt about that—averaging around 20 points per game and making all-star appearances. But Hawks fans were left wanting more from their superstar. Perhaps some of the criticism was unfair—Johnson’s always been targeted for not showing enough passion during games, but he’s never been one to express his emotions publicly.
Johnson’s game has been alarmingly passive at times, however. Just like his Atlanta team on many occasions, Johnson’s coasted through big games like they really didn’t matter. If his Game 4 heroics against the Celtics in 2008 represented one of his highest points in a Hawks uniform, then Game 4 of the 2012 series against the same opposition was one of his lowest. Johnson took just eight shots in massive must-win game (the Hawks were trailing 2-1 in the series), to finish with a meager 9 points. It was the type of game that Atlanta needed their superstar to step up in, and he failed miserably.
Big players show up in the biggest moments and Johnson’s come up short more than once.
Of course, Johnson’s huge contract didn’t help his relationship with Hawks fans. Since 2010, it’s hung around his neck like a noose, ready to choke him when he failed to hit the heights expected of someone making $120 million. That wasn’t all his fault, however. No one should blame players for signing big contracts. If the owners put the money on the table, any sane, rational individual is going to sign on the dotted line.
Despite Johnson’s consistently good, but never great, career thus far, he has been given a chance for a new start—a rebooting of sorts. Johnson has the opportunity to shine under the bright lights of New York, and live up to his superstar billing.
This might say more about the dearth of great 2-guards in the NBA right now, but after Kobe Bryant and Dwayne Wade, Johnson is probably still the best shooting-guard in the league. He’s got great size for the position, and despite his disappearing act at times in Atlanta, does possess that elusive ‘clutch gene.’ Johnson can hit the big shots when it matters.
In Brooklyn, unlike in Atlanta, Johnson won’t be the main man. The Nets are Williams’ team. Johnson will play a big role, but he’ll be expected touch the ball far less. We should see a lot less of the ‘Iso-Joe’ version of Johnson that was on show in Atlanta—and that’s a good thing. Johnson has great range, and the potential to be extremely effective coming off screens, and working off Williams’ penetration. Johnson hasn’t played with a point-guard anywhere near Williams’ quality since his brief time with Steve Nash in Phoenix, and he will find himself open far more in Brooklyn.
The pressure is still on Johnson. There’s no denying that. With the Nets, however, he’ll be able to function in the background more, and maybe that’s something he’s always secretly needed. Johnson can now be the second option, and not always the first.
As it stands, Joe Johnson is going to go down as a pretty good NBA player once his career is over. He now has a few years in Brooklyn to see if he can elevate his historical standing from simply good, to great.