The Brooklyn Nets have agreed in principle to a deal that will make them significantly better, and possibly vault them into the playoffs in 2012-13. They've ensured that their team will potentially have one of the better backcourts in the NBA, they're well on their way to re-signing one of the better offensive centers (they still have those?) in the league, and they've given up precious few assets along the way. Their owner doesn't appear to care about the luxury tax, or payroll frustrations, and they've signed off on not attempting to acquire a player in Dwight Howard that has managed to look like a petulant brat even by NBA standards.
The Atlanta Hawks just traded their All-Star scorer for expiring contracts, with no real assets to marvel as they step away from assuring themselves at best a 40-win mark in 2012-13.
So why are we so hopped on what Atlanta just did, and what the Brooklyn Nets just handed themselves? Call it pirate radar, because this Joe Johnson contract will just never make sense to us, almost completely irrespective of context or fit.
Johnson is off to Brooklyn, now. Traded for a batch of expiring contracts that include Johan Petro, Jordan Williams, Anthony Morrow and a signed-and-traded DeShawn Stevenson. The Hawks will get a draft pick from Brooklyn; but it's a lottery-protected first-rounder via the Houston Rockets that turns into a second-round selection in 2017 if Atlanta doesn't use it by then. The Hawks are a playoff team, a squad that was in the second round last year and gave the Boston Celtics all they could handle in the first round in 2012, and they'll get absolutely nothing out of this. Though the team will still feature Josh Smith and Al Horford on its frontline (as we write this, at least, because the offseason has just begun), new GM Danny Ferry has completely hamstrung his team's offense.
And yet you still get the idea that the more mindful fans of Atlanta Hawk basketball are giddy. Should they be? We think so. Sometimes you have to dig down to pull yourself up from a middling level.
Brooklyn? This is your team now.
No way around it. Assuming All-Star point guard Deron Williams re-signs for a maximum contract, the team will be committed to over $50 million in salary by the 2013 offseason to just D-Will, newly signed Gerald Wallace and Johnson. Johnson, you'll recall, is owed $89 million over the next four years of his career; and though his touch and frame make him less susceptible to the onset of age, the sheer amount of minutes he averaged in Atlanta (along with the possessions he used up) just about cements the fact that one of the oddest contracts in NBA history will be just as laughable when it ends (just two days after Joe turns 35 years old) as when it was signed in 2010.
Which is odd, because Joe Johnson contributes and contributes well to winning basketball teams. Hopefully you've noticed a theme, by now.
Joe isn't Eddy Curry, signed and forgotten within two years. Joe isn't even Rashard Lewis, who at least moderately added to Orlando and Washington until last season. We may quibble with each of his All-Star berths, but Joe Johnson is right on the cusp of that 12-man crew. He's a versatile scoring wing that defends well and uses possessions solidly. Not always the most efficient, and his isolation heavy attack reminds of even a less-potent Jamal Mashburn at times, but he'll be around. And on a team funded by billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov, the luxury tax may be of no concern for a team that still has to sign Brook Lopez and possibly bring back Kris Humphries.
It's a very famous team, apparently. Which is what Prokhorov might be after. And that's what disappoints us.
Because if the Nets were truly committed to adding a star to their ledger, why go after the one with the worst contract? Why not push the Chicago Bulls, desperate for depth and contracts that expire soon, and see if prying Carlos Boozer (who owns an onerous contract yet still makes about half of what Johnson will make between now and its expiration) is worth chasing down, especially considering the (on-court, at least) chemistry he once showcased with Williams?
Why not hold serve with Williams, who clearly wants to take more money to play in a fantastic city in a new building with the Nets, and see if some complicated three or even four-team trade could be hashed out with an Orlando Magic team that is talking big right now but is just a few "nah, we're cool" phone calls away from having to wonder if a still-untraded Dwight Howard will show up for media day in October?
Why this team, full stop? D-Will, JJ, Crash, Brook … and helpers. More or less capped out for ages. Damn good offense, enough box office accessibility, aesthetically pleasing if Johnson commits to actual movement, pretty cool uniforms, and an owner who will happily take to the payroll and resultant cap exceptions that will allow Billy King to go after the various stakes he has in a litany of international fires.
I just wonder if it's all too soon. I just wonder if merely telling Deron Williams about those other stakes — the ones that could bring in another "star" to Brooklyn — would be enough. He wasn't going to Dallas, Billy. He was never going to turn down less money, and we don't blame him.
More importantly, he was never going to choose riding out the end of Dirk Nowitzki's fabulous career over the intrigue that comes with playing for a team with myriad options like the Nets. Dallas owner Mark Cuban probably wouldn't sneeze at paying the luxury tax, even with the additional penalties the new collective bargaining agreement put in place, but the Mavs were and are limited in their options. The Nets? Even passing on the Dwight Howard ideal, they had room to move.
Not after this. Not after Gerald Wallace, a player nobody was even coming close to halving the four-year, $40 million deal Brooklyn just gifted him, was brought back. Not after trading for Joe Johnson. Not after committing, so soon. I mean, things aren't even official yet, not before July 11, and Billy King just decided what the next four years of his life are going to look like.
The upshot is a good team. The Nets were going to spend that money anyway, and they'll vault into a nicer stratum as a result of these moves. You just have to wonder how the borough of Brooklyn will react to a new tenant moving in — one that seems to have the range and scope of a team they may have noticed playing out of Atlanta over the last few years.
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