It’s hard to think of a time in NBA history when Joe Johnson hasn’t been criticized for what he was making, or his potentially overstated value to a team. In 2005, when Johnson was a free agent being courted by the Atlanta Hawks, the contract and trading package Atlanta gave up for him set off a literal court argument between Hawk ownership factions, with one side thinking that the rebuilding franchise was giving up too much for the scorer. In 2010, Johnson’s massive six-year, $119 million contract extension was criticized even before he was allowed to set pen to paper.
Now a Brooklyn Net, Johnson is still hearing the same criticism for those that think that $19.7 million is too much to pay for a player that averaged 16.3 points per game (with a combined 6.5 rebounds/assists) in the regular season. In a conference call with reporters on Sunday, Nets interim coach dismissed such criticizing, as relayed by ESPN New York:
Responding to a question during a Sunday conference call about how critics think Johnson is too reliant on isolation plays, settles for too many jumpers and isn’t worthy of his max contract, Carlesimo replied, “It’s hard to be polite and answer the question. ‘Critic’ is such an ambiguous term. I would call them uniformed or basketball unintelligent. Everybody’s entitled to their opinion. It would be hard for me to think that there was an intelligent basketball person making a statement like that about Joe Johnson.”
“It would be scary to think what this year would’ve been like without Joe Johnson,” Carlesimo said.
It isn’t fair that P.J. Carlesimo – who was an assistant coach with the Toronto Raptors in the summer of 2010, when Johnson signed his contract – would have to answer questions about the contract an ownership group in Atlanta decided to give Joe nearly three years ago.
It’s also unfair to Joe. He’s never attempted to portray himself as a LeBron James-styled franchise player. Atlanta offered him a deal, hoping to sell him as a top-tiered franchise guy to their fans, and he rightfully took it. And his career arc since 2010 has gone exactly as expected. His production has declined since that offseason, but only because Joe was merely a borderline All-Star heading into that summer, and he’s now in his early 30s. Not because he’s taking it easy because of his massive payday, because Joe is still working his tail off.
That doesn’t mean the critics are wrong, P.J. Carlesimo. Or that they’re “uninformed or basketball unintelligent.” We can appreciate what Joe Johnson’s super scoring touch does for a team while still being mindful of the fact that the guy is owed over $69 million over the next three seasons. Three seasons after the 16.3 points per game turn he took this year.
Nets and Hawks fans booing Johnson for his payroll numbers hardly make sense, with their enmity. It was former Hawks general manager Rick Sund that decided to keep Johnson in Atlanta (it’s possible that suitors in Chicago and New York could have overpaid for Johnson’s services in 2010) for that outrageous price, and it was Nets GM Billy King that decided to trade for that whopper of a contract two years after it was signed. None of this is Johnson’s fault, and none of this is something that Carlesimo should be answering for. Especially as P.J. isn’t even the team’s official head coach, because he’s still working on an interim basis.
Carlesimo’s ending quote -- “It would be scary to think what this year would’ve been like without Joe Johnson” – is an entirely different story. The Nets are badly struggling to score against a nasty Chicago Bulls defense, and Johnson has upped his on-court stay and production in the playoffs to 17.5 points in 39 minutes a contest. His efficiency in getting those numbers has fallen off, but that’s par for the course in a small sample size against a brilliant Bulls defense.
Carlesimo wasn’t asked where his Nets would be without Joe, though. He was asked if he thought the gripes about his contract were valid. This is the difference between a coach, who only sees players one-through-12, and a GM that has to pair production with payroll.
Joe Johnson has done great work in keeping his Nets in games, while working through a painful plantar fasciitis injury along the way. By all accounts he is a good teammate and well-liked around the league, and he’s certainly appreciated by Carlesimo – the man that had to ask an injured Joe Johnson to play nearly 48 minutes on one healthy foot in Brooklyn’s Game 4 triple overtime loss to the Bulls. A game that Johnson kept going from overtime to overtime because of his clutch scoring.
He’s still going to be known for his contract as much as anything. Especially as Joe moves into working at age 32, 33 and 34 for (respectively) over $21 million, over $23 million, and nearly $25 million in 2015-16.
Basketball unintelligence be damned, this isn’t going away any time soon.