Since the Brooklyn Nets made the decision to not bring back Paul Pierce in the summer of 2014, the franchise has experienced a slow and sure crumble. Never in a million years would one have expected that Joe Johnson would be one of the final dominoes to fall, but here we are.
The quiet and unassuming Johnson spent three mostly productive seasons in Brooklyn before being bought out of the remaining year of his contract last month, and has since joined the Miami HEAT.
The most obvious concerns at this point are about how much Johnson has left in the tank and what he can still offer. He may have already answered it.
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Covering the NBA from New York City, I have spent quite a bit of time around Johnson over the past few years. He can correctly be labeled as the “anti-Garnett,” as Cool Joe rarely met a conversation that he liked or found reason to be overly assertive or boisterous. What I have known for a few months was that Johnson understandably grew incredibly unhappy in Brooklyn.
Finding a taker for Johnson and the money left on his contract was a difficult and nearly impossible endeavor, so newly installed general manager Sean Marks made the wise decision to buy Johnson out. He has now taken his talents to South Beach.
As Chris Bosh’s status remains uncertain, the HEAT wasted no time in incorporating Johnson into their rotation and the early returns have been positive. In less than 24 hours, Johnson went from clearing waivers to being inserted into Erik Spoelstra’s starting lineup.
With Johnson having been inserted as a starter, the team won its first two games. Thus far, the 34-year-old has combined to shoot 15-for-23 from the field and is averaging 18 points per contest.
The HEAT entered the season as my dark horse candidate to challenge for supremacy in the Eastern Conference, though Bosh’s status diminishes the probability of that. Johnson, though, can yield similar returns for the HEAT on the offensive side of the court, so his acquisition is worth watching.
What I have always appreciated most about Johnson is his impressive size. Standing at 6’8, Johnson has the size and frame of a prototypical NBA small forward, but his shooting ability is what has made him a centi-millionaire over the course of his 16-year career. What’s more impressive about Johnson, though, is his ability to operate out of the pinch-post and low box areas of the court. From a one-on-one standpoint, Johnson can be a nightmare for opposing shooting guards. His ability to create his own shot off of the dribble, catch-and-shoot and operate from the low post—in combination with his impressive size—give him a set of gifts that is rather unique among contemporary perimeter players.
As it relates to him augmenting or replacing Bosh in the HEAT’s lineup, he will come nowhere near matching the defensive contributions left by Bosh’s absence, but offensively, as a floor spacer and low-post weapon, he can play a similar role to what Bosh played during the LeBron James era in Miami.
Interestingly enough, as the NBA-viewing public, we all seem to have short memories. Years ago, with Pau Gasol struggling to fully mold himself into a Mike D’Antoni power forward, many thought that his best years were behind him. Since then, he has reverted into an All-Star in Chicago and has reinserted himself into the conversation of being one of the most talented and versatile big men in the game today.
When Rajon Rondo moved on from Boston after struggling to regain his form as a member of the Celtics, things never really seemed to work out well with Rick Carlisle, Dirk Nowitzki and the veteran point guard. Difficult as his tenure with the Kings thus far has been, it is fair to say that Rondo has played his value up this season in Sacramento, as he enters play on March 3 leading the league with 12.1 assists per game—a firm lead over second-ranking Russell Westbrook, who is clocking 10.3 assists per game.
Nothing reinvigorates an aging player or one trying to regain his form more than a change of scenery and a feeling of purpose and belonging.
To a competitor, nothing feels better than proving the doubters wrong and proving the believers correct, particularly when the believers were few and far between. And just like I did with Gasol and Rondo a few moons ago, I declare myself a believer in Johnson and his ability to still contribute at a high level. His performance thus far as a member of the HEAT—though occurring in a limited sample size—on a macro level, is indicative of what he can contribute to Dwyane Wade’s team.
With or without Bosh, the HEAT will be a formidable foe for anyone they will be matched up against during this year’s playoffs. And their success under Johnson and his seamless blending into their rotation is no aberration. He can play a role similar to what Bosh has for this team in the past (although from a different position, obviously).
And if things break correctly—and if Pat Riley once again proves himself to be as smart as we think he is—don’t be surprised if the HEAT’s NBA season ends up lasting just a tad bit longer than most of us expected as recently as two weeks ago.
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