Joe Johnson and exorcising demons

It’s been hard being a Nets fan for these past few years.

Ever since Jason Kidd forced his way out of New Jersey via trade in 2008 — and really, earlier — the Nets have been, to put it bluntly, a league-wide joke. Each year, they’ve forced their way into conversations for superstars on the promise of tomorrow, that Brooklyn would come and the Barclays Center will be packed and everyone will think you’re just the swellest thing that ever came over the Brooklyn Bridge.

Except for four years, that pitch didn’t work. Even with the promise of tomorrow, no one wanted to play in New Jersey. The “Big 3″ of the 2010 free agency class didn’t care for it. Carmelo Anthony didn’t care for it. Nene didn’t care for it. Players turned down larger contracts to spare themselves from playing even a season in basketball’s purgatory. No one believed it, not the players, not the agents, not the fans, not writers or bloggers or analysts I respect. I was, frankly, embarrassed to be a Nets fan.

Until Dwight Howard came along. Dwight Howard was the beacon, the savior, the flash of light beaming on this dark, depressing franchise. He was the one who would change everything, be the one that reversed every curse, excorcised every demon, and kicked off Brooklyn with a party fit for King’s County.

Of course, that’s not how it turned out.

Because we’ve all heard the rumors, the stories, the sources too many times, let’s cut to today: Dwight Howard is over. Not Dwight Howard as a player (unless his back has taken an unfortunate, tragic turn), and not even the possibility of Dwight Howard as a Brooklyn Nets player down the line. But for now, the Nets have turned their back on the rumor, the wish, the fantasy that one day, some player who allegedly, maybe, possibly wanted to join their team one of these coming days, will make it into the building wearing black & white.

The Nets have moved on. And we should too.

Don’t get me wrong — the Nets would’ve preferred Dwight Howard to Joe Johnson. Of that there is no doubt. But they prefer Joe Johnson to nothing. And at this point in time, Dwight Howard wasn’t the alternative. Nothing was. If the Nets wanted to enter Brooklyn with a stripped-down roster, half-assing a rebuilding effort in the hopes of enticing Dwight Howard The Superstar with their fancy arena and Fort Greene Park, they might as well have never left Newark.

Brooklyn deserves better. It deserves better than what New Jersey’s mostly disgruntled fans have been forced to sit through for the last four years as the team smoothly made its exodus. Brooklyn deserves more than daily will-he-won’t-he trade rumors about someone else’s players. Brooklyn deserves victories over twiddling thumbs and directionless phone calls. That’s what King thought, and though I’ve had my share of disagreements with his moves and his methods, I’m glad for it.

Building in Brooklyn doesn’t need to be an overnight championship. It doesn’t need to be 70 wins and running through the Eastern Conference as an afterthought. For the Nets to truly distance themselves from the mistake-filled, absurd era of New Jersey, Brooklyn needs to build a winning culture, and build it immediately. That doesn’t mean waiting for the other shoe to drop, that means making the moves that help you compete now.

Brooklyn cannot represent what New Jersey represented; star-gazing from afar in the hopes that one would land in the palm of their hands someday. It can’t be yet another year of selling a fanbase on cap space and possibility. The Nets tore it down, year after year, in the hopes that someone might build them a mansion.

No one did. And that’s why the Nets got Joe Johnson.

Joe Johnson is not perfect. Joe Johnson is a talented, wildly overpaid shooting guard. Joe Johnson won’t turn this team into an overnight contender. He’s certainly not as talented as Dwight Howard. He won’t make them win championships. But he’ll help them win games. And that’s the start Brooklyn needs, not another 25-win season slobbering over thy neighbor’s goods.