By Steve Lichtenstein
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While engaging with others on social media on Thursday following the Nets’ announcement that they had waived forward Joe Johnson, I flashbacked to my childhood when I would get scolded for not eating my vegetables.
“This is good,” my parents would implore. “You’ll be healthier in the long run.”
My irrational fandom might make some question my current maturity level, but I didn’t get it then and I don’t get what new Brooklyn general manager Sean Marks did now.
Sure, the buyout is good for the 34-year-old Johnson, who will now have the weekend to sort through presumed offers from the Cavs, Thunder, Heat, Hawks and any other NBA contender with an open roster spot (assuming Johnson is not claimed on waivers by Friday night). He’ll surely be participating in the postseason for a ninth consecutive season instead of languishing on the rotten Nets.
It will be good for whichever team lands the seven-time All-Star, who should thrive with a lightened minutes load and less responsibility. He won’t be expected to carry a team the way he bulldozed the Raptors for seven games two years ago en route to the Nets’ only playoff series victory in their four seasons in Brooklyn.
And, as Marks stated Thursday during an interview with ESPN, let’s not forget the $3 million Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov will save by escaping the final month and a half of Johnson’s six-year, $124 million contract.
For the Nets as a basketball team and their fans? Thursday was not a day to celebrate.
I get that Johnson, who was not exactly spry while in his prime, has lost several steps as he has aged. Some of his recent defensive efforts were literally statuesque.
His offensive numbers were at levels not seen since his first couple of years in the league. He was averaging just 11.8 points per game on 40.6 percent shooting from the floor this season.
However, there’s no arguing that the Nets were a better team when Johnson was on the floor. Since Tony Brown took over for fired Lionel Hollins on Jan. 11, the Nets have been outscored by 7.5 points per 100 possessions in losing 15 of 20 games, according to NBA.com. Johnson, who played an average of 32.4 minutes per game in that span, was the only Net to post a positive net rating.
In other words, Johnson played a little more than two-thirds of the minutes of a 20-game stretch in which the Nets were outscored by a total of 154 points. When Johnson was on the court, the Nets built a cumulative 13-point lead. When he sat, the Nets were bludgeoned by 167 points.
On a team that lacked an NBA-caliber point guard since Jarrett Jack was felled by an ACL tear in his knee in the first game of the New Year, Johnson was forced to act as a facilitator, not just as a finisher. In my opinion, Johnson had the best court vision on the Nets.
That’s what makes this buyout far different than the one Marks orchestrated last week with Andrea Bargnani, the enigmatic 7-foot center who proved to be of little use outside of the few games where his mid-range jump shots were falling at a greater clip than his lackluster defense would surrender on the other end.
It also doesn’t compare to Deron Williams’ exile out of Brooklyn prior to this season. Johnson has always acted like a professional, a role model for the Nets’ younger players. He has never been accused of being a locker room cancer or coach-killer like D-Will.
Furthermore, Johnson was Williams’ opposite when it came to clutch abilities. Johnson will always be remembered for his buzzer-beaters, including the one-legged bank shot from 25 feet out that beat Denver earlier this month.
No player in the NBA over the last five years has made more buckets (12) to tie or take the lead in the last 10 seconds of the fourth quarter or overtime than Johnson. By the way, he converted on 48.1 percent of those opportunities, according to NBA.com.
By comparison, Stephen Curry is 9-for-25 (36 percent) in those situations.
I would concede the buyout argument if Johnson’s presence was holding back a young player whom the Nets believed could stick around through the rebuild. But the Nets have very little depth on the wing, especially with rookie Rondae Hollis-Jefferson still sidelined with a fracture in his ankle.
The hope was that Hollis-Jefferson would return in early March, but he hasn’t even started practicing. With the Nets in the middle of a nine-game road trip, I would doubt that they will rush him back before mid-March.
Bojan Bogdanovic got promoted to the starting lineup in Johnson’s slot for Thursday’s 116-106 Nets victory in Phoenix. While the nearly 27-year-old Croatian lit up the tanking Suns to the tune of 24 points, including 20 in the first half, and has been on a bit of a hot streak since the Nets’ regime change, shooting 42.9 percent from 3-point range, he is not the answer.
Bogdanovic is just not athletic enough to play the position. He’s an even worse defender than Johnson. I have seen Bogdanovic gain some confidence driving to the hoop in recent weeks, but he’s still the most likely to have the ball stolen or stripped from his hands because of his relatively poor ballhandling fundamentals.
So what was the point of saying farewell to Johnson?
Some have suggested that Marks was looking to build goodwill among the agent class that wields some influence on upcoming free agents. Maybe, but at most it’s a secondary consideration, well behind dollars and a team’s proximity to an NBA championship. Kevin Durant is not thinking, “Hey, Brooklyn did Joe Johnson a solid. Forget playing with the (insert title contender here), I’m gonna be a Net!”
The Nets currently have two open roster slots and have about a $3.1 million disabled player exception from Jack’s injury which could be used to pick up a player off the scrap heap or through a trade for someone in the final year of his contract.
However, the trade deadline passed a week ago and there’s no player on the street worthy of such a deal.
Except for Joe Johnson.
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1