Other than the re-signing of Deron Williams, the Brooklyn Nets' most talked about move this offseason has been the trade for Joe Johnson. Executed just days before Williams would re-sign to form "Brooklyn's Backcourt", the trade sent Anthony Morrow, DeShawn Stevenson, Jordan Farmar, Jordan Williams, Johan Petro and a first and second round draft pick in exchange for the Atlanta Hawks shooting guard. Though the Nets and their fans can now proudly make claims to having the best backcourt in the league, initially the idea of acquiring Joe Johnson and his out-sized contract (about $89 million remaining over 4 seasons) was met with revulsion and assertions that general manager Billy King had finally lost his mind. The length and size of Johnson's contract continues to be raised when questions about the Nets' future flexibility come up, but for now, focus has rightfully shifted to projecting what the six-time All-Star can bring to Brooklyn.
Though the Nets will surely be restricted in what moves they can make down the line so long as Johnson's deal remains on the books, the Nets with their billionaire Russian owner will luckily not have to sweat the kind of luxury tax concerns that regularly fell smaller market teams such as the Oklahoma City Thunder. As Johnson was acquired early in the free agency period, the Nets' front office was able to complete the rest of their moves by taking advantage of the NBA's Bird rights provision, allowing them to re-sign their incumbent players to generous deals despite going well over the salary cap. Mikhail Prokhorov will have to foot a hefty luxury tax bill, but as far as building the roster, it didn't make a difference whether Joe Johnson was paid $20 million or $10 million a year; the Nets always intended on busting through that cap ceiling anyway.
If this seems like a lot of words given to discussing a player's contract, it's fairly reflective of how the basketball world usually approaches discussions about Joe Johnson. Any praise of Joe Johnson must start with some kind of disclaimer: "I know he makes too much money, but..." It can get tiring to speak so much about what another person makes, as if Johnson himself is at fault for accepting a deal anyone would jump at, and as if the over-sized contract says anything about Johnson's actual game. So, finally, let's actually talk about that game.
Though he just turned 31, Johnson does not project to see as steep a decline in production as do such athleticism-reliant former All-Stars as Gilbert Arenas, Tracy McGrady, Allen Iverson, and so forth (I'm more concerned about Gerald Wallace in that area). Johnson has always been known first and foremost for his jumpshot, the facet of a game most likely to stick around as a players ages (see Ray Allen, Jason Richardson). When Johnson does step inside the arc, his moves are often of a more calculating, back-to-the-basket variety, not dissimilar to Paul Pierce. In fact, Johnson's propensity and ability to take his defender one-on-one has earned him the unfortunate moniker "Iso-Joe". This could easily be a result of both not having ever played with an elite point guard in Altanta and uncreative play calling by the Hawks' coaching staff. Deron Williams should remedy the former; as for the latter, I have my doubts about Avery Johnson's offensive playbook.
A lesser known strength of Johnson is his individual defense, one of the better at his position. Due to his large size for a shooting guard, Johnson is able to physically out-tough his opponent; Deron Williams sports a similar body-size advantage at his position, so let's hope Johnson's defensive acumen rubs off on his backcourt partner.
Where Johnson should assuredly form a defensive connection is with his wing partner, Gerald Wallace. Both are two of the better defenders at their position, and since all roads in the Eastern Conference run through LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and the Miami Heat, having two of the best wing defenders in the conference to check arguably the two best wing scorers in the conference is an under-discussed strength of the Nets roster. Johnson and Wallace can only do so much themselves, however, and it remains to be seen if the defensive shortcoming of the Nets' frontcourt will essentially nullify that strength at the wings.
When pundits get to discussing the Nets and how they might be overrated, the quick line of dismissal is typically "all they did was re-sign their players and add Joe Johnson, how much better they can be?" First of all, this ignores the fact that even Brook Lopez and Gerald Wallace had never played a game together before this season, due to injuries. Secondly, this line of reasoning would make Joe Johnson out to be some kind of inconsequential minor addition; rest assured, Johnson is a major acquisition. He immediately becomes Brooklyn's second best player, who not only improves the Nets in and of himself, but helps take some of the offensive pressure off of Deron Williams and Brook Lopez, who have shouldered more than their share the last couple of years. He does MarShon Brooks a favor by relegating him to the bench, and along with Gerald Wallace becomes a leader on the defensive end of the court.
Joe Johnson is a bit of a contradiction; his contract screams at you with its 9 digits, but his game is often quietly discussed. Johnson himself is a well-mannered, polite and at-times boring personality, but on the court, he has a reputation as one of the clutchest shots in the league. As the Brooklyn hype has gotten carried away in itself the last few months, it's odd to remember the first Brooklyn player to proclaim the Nets as kings of New York; Joe Johnson. Though Deron Williams may be the team's biggest star and most visible personality, Joe Johnson will be as important as anyone in determining whether his superiority boast comes to be true.