By Steve Lichtenstein
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Watching Nets forward Joe Johnson play these days creates a battle between my head and my heart.
My brain processes the 34-year-old’s obvious rapid aging. Only LeBron James has played more NBA minutes than Johnson over the last 12 years, and it shows.
Never known as a skywalker to begin with, Johnson now barely gets any lift on his jump shots. His patented floaters in the paint are no longer money in the bank.
It has led to a precipitous decline in Johnson’s field goal percentage. Prior to Tuesday’s home game versus Atlanta, Johnson was shooting just 32.5 percent from the floor, including a meek 19.4 percent from 3-point territory.
It’s a far cry from the summer of 2012, when Johnson arrived in Brooklyn courtesy of general manager Billy King’s blockbuster trade with the Hawks and was still considered an All-Star-caliber player.
Johnson is in the final season of the six-year, $123 million contract he signed back in 2010. He is the second-highest paid player in the League behind Kobe Bryant, making approximately $24.9 million.
Only now the Nets, who stand at 2-9 following Tuesday’s 90-88 victory over a Hawks squad missing two starters, are in a downward trajectory for the foreseeable future thanks to King’s incompetence.
Since the Nets are already transitioning to a younger and more athletic roster, wouldn’t it make sense to move Johnson to a contending team as a rental prior to this season’s trade deadline? See what you can get for him — preferably a young player or maybe even a draft pick. Find expiring contracts as filler to make the deal work under salary cap rules.
In the meantime, scale back Johnson’s role so he’ll have more juice in games and possibly look more attractive to prospective buyers. Johnson played 39 minutes on Tuesday while exciting rookie Rondae Hollis-Jefferson played 23 minutes. Logic dictates that those should be reversed.
Except that basketball, as Brooklyn coach Lionel Hollins is wont to tell us, is often more than numbers. I watched the Nets finally execute down the stretch of a game and I can say with confidence that though Thaddeus Young recorded the game-winning points on Tuesday on a pair of free throws with 1.4 seconds remaining — and then deflected away the Hawks’ subsequent inbounds pass to run out the clock — none of it would have been possible without Johnson.
Johnson’s 13 points on 5-for-14 shooting (2-for-5 from 3-point range) make it seem like he played another pedestrian game. Only it doesn’t measure Johnson’s impact as a facilitator, taking over the offense as a “point forward” after Brooklyn stumbled out of the gate with nine turnovers in the game’s first 14 minutes and trailed by as many as 10 in the second quarter.
Johnson accumulated nine assists without a single turnover. As I’ve opined in previous posts, the player known as “Iso Joe” for his one-on-one prowess sees the floor better than both of the Nets’ nominal point guards — Jarrett Jack and Shane Larkin.
“He (Johnson) is bigger,” Hollins said when asked why he went with the 6-foot-8 Johnson to initiate the attack for much of the second half. “And the way they were trying to show (defending pick-and-rolls) and keep us from making passes, Joe was able to still see over it. And he is also big enough that when he got to the basket they had to deal with it.”
Jack, who has been stellar the past three games, including knocking down a clutch mid-range pull-up with 33 seconds left to tie it at 88-88 on Tuesday, appreciates Johnson’s unselfishness.
“Throughout most of his career, people have made such a big thing about him being such a dominant scorer,” Jack said. “But being his teammate the past two years, he’s such a willing passer and making the right play, which a lot of guys that are ‘scorers’ don’t necessarily do, him being selfless enough to make those plays, it speaks volumes about him as a person and a player.”
After Jack’s bucket, Brooklyn center Brook Lopez denied Hawks forward Paul Millsap at the rim and Young grabbed the rebound with about six seconds remaining.
Young passed to Johnson, who took off on a 3-on-2 break. Hollins was about to call a timeout, “but I bit my lip.” He trusted Johnson, who made a habit of bailing the Nets out with late-game heroics in his first two seasons in Brooklyn, to make the right play.
Which he did — not by taking the ball to the rim in a reckless foray, but by feeding Young, who was fouled by Atlanta’s Kyle Korver.
Defending with a two-point lead, Hollins had the 7-foot Lopez guarding inbounds passer Thabo Sefolosha. That left Johnson on Hawks center Al Horford, not his usual assignment.
When Horford cut to the free-throw line to set a pick to free Korver, Johnson had to make a quick switch to deny a pass to the sweet-shooting swingman at the top of the key.
That left Sefolosha with no choice but to try a lob into the paint for Horford. Young batted it towards mid-court as time expired to give Brooklyn a much-needed win.
It was quite a night’s work for a player in his prime, never mind one with as much mileage as Johnson. He brought the ball up the floor, making plays for his teammates and a few for himself. He guarded almost every position. He grabbed seven defensive rebounds and was credited with a steal.
Not that Johnson would ever complain about whatever his role may be at any given point. He is a true professional, rarely using injuries or the Nets’ constant turnover of players and coaches as a crutch the way a certain departed point guard would have.
When King bought out Deron Williams over the summer, there were no tears shed here. It accelerated the Nets’ demise, but they weren’t winning anything significant with a player who routinely gagged in the biggest moments.
The shame is that Johnson — the anti-D-Will — will also be long gone by the time Brooklyn turns the corner. Excuse me for not wanting the day Johnson is jettisoned to arrive so soon.
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1