“It’s been tough.”
“Not just today or last week.”
“I’m not going to sit here and front.”
“I didn’t know.”
“I honestly didn’t know.”
This is just a smattering of a few of Joe Johnson’s thoughts this season on his now 7-20 Nets, who have lost five straight games. It’s a far cry from “it’s not that bad here.”
The road only gets steeper. Brooklyn now embarks on a stretch of 11 of 12 games against teams with .500 or better records, which could send their already-sinking season plunging past the Titanic wreck and into that weird part of the deep ocean where the anglerfish hunt.
Johnson has been a good soldier in a Brooklyn uniform: before the season, we ranked him as the greatest Brooklyn Nets player of “all time” (which really just means the last three years). But if he doesn’t want to be here anymore, there’s probably only one route: a contract buyout.
A few thoughts regarding how it could work, with some assistance from Larry Coon’s CBA FAQ:
1) The Nets have no real incentive to buy out Johnson, other than to assuage his potential wishes. Emphasis on potential; I should be clear — there is no indication that Johnson WANTS a buyout right now, or that the Nets are even considering it. This is purely speculation based on the trajectory of the season and of Johnson’s mood about it.
But buying out Johnson does nothing for the Nets in the short-term. They won’t save any money on the salary cap; even if they buy him out for nothing, Johnson’s $24.9 million still sits on the salary cap in full, leaving them unable to make any bigger moves. A buyout would help two things: Johnson’s conscience (again, if he requests it) and it could save the Nets a few million dollars on their actual balance sheet at the end of the year.
2) The Nets have been worse without Johnson. This isn’t a testament to Johnson’s game-changing abilities, just his offense-floating ones. In Johnson, they face the same predicament as Williams, though with less moodiness. Even with his notable offensive struggles this season, Johnson still ranks as the arguably the team’s best playmaker, and the Nets offense is far better off with him on the floor than on the bench.
Given the lackluster production from Bojan Bogdanovic, Wayne Ellington, Sergey Karasev, and Markel Brown, the season could go from bad to outright unwatchable if Johnson kicks out. (The team’s defense actually gets a bit better, but it doesn’t make up for the offensive drop-off, and that could be because the Nets are playing against opposing benches when he sits.)
The Nets might also value Johnson’s tutelage for their young players, particularly Rondae Hollis-Jefferson.
3) The Nets could not “stretch” Joe Johnson’s contract, like they did with Deron Williams. It’s unlikely they’d want to do this anyway, as Johnson’s contract doesn’t extend beyond April, and the Nets already have $22 million in dead salary owed to Deron Williams over the next four seasons. But contracts can only be “stretched” if there are years beyond the current season. They could’ve used the stretch provision with Johnson in the offseason, but once September 1st rolled around, Johnson’s salary was locked in.
4) Trading him will be damn near impossible. Johnson’s value to the Nets off the court is that his $24.9 million contract is a giant expiring. The Nets likely want to keep their cap sheet as open as possible with free agency looming. But that also makes it difficult to match salaries with other teams, teams that may not want to give up players for a declining scorer with a hefty price tag.
5) January 10th could be an important date. On January 10th, all contracts become fully guaranteed by the league. Johnson could use that to his advantage if the team wants to buy him out after January 10th — say, close to the trade deadline if they can’t strike a deal — and say the Nets owe him his full contract no matter what.
But if Johnson really wants out — and again, we’re not saying that’s the case — he could elect to waive that protection and take a salary cut. So it probably won’t matter. It just might.
So should the Nets buy out Joe Johnson? Probably not, unless he flat-out refuses to show up, which seems out of character. But Johnson has made it clear that he wants to play for a winner next year, and at 34, he’s past the point where he can be the focal point of a successful team. Even if he sticks around until the last day of the season, that day will most likely be his last moments in Brooklyn black & white.
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