How a Joe Johnson buyout could help the Nets

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If the Nets are in a bridge year, this is the part of the Wile E. Coyote cartoon where he takes his first step on what he believes to be land, peers down into the abyss, and plummets 800 feet into a tiny stream. They’re a veteran 12-37 team going nowhere but south, and when veteran players make up a team going south, the questions begin. What changes can be made?

The player in question du jour is 34-year-old seven-time All-Star Joe Johnson, who’s asked to take on an enormous load with the Nets. Johnson can be an effective piece, perhaps as a scorer/facilitator off the bench for a contending team. But the Nets are not that team, and reporters asked Johnson today if he was open to moving on. His answers were unclear, and left open the possibility of a buyout.

Johnson’s $24.9 million is thought of as an annual figure, but an NBA salary is actually measured in the days of the season. Today (February 2nd) is the 99th day of the 170-day season, and thus Johnson is owed about $14.5 million so far (99 out of 170 days of salary at that number). That’s his money, and no buyout can take that away from him.

That also means he’s owed about $10.4 million from now until the rest of the year. That’s the money that can be negotiated, and if the Nets and Johnson do elect to part ways, there are interesting ways the Nets can create options for themselves.

For one, the Nets are butting up against the luxury tax, and Johnson’s salary is a major part of that. If they buy out Johnson and allow him to pursue a contract elsewhere, they could lessen their salary obligation, which could help them get creative to engineer moves around the trade deadline.

Here’s an example. Say the Nets buy out Joe Johnson for a total cost of $19.9 million, saving them $5 million on his deal. That gives them an extra $5 million to play around with without adding anything to their salary obligation.

Now, they could pocket that money. $5 million could buy you a whole studio apartment near Barclays Center (with a shared bathroom — let’s not get crazy). They could use it to help hire a general manager, which they do not currently have. But if they choose to improve something on-court with it, they have options.

The biggest option is the Injury Exception granted to them following Jarrett Jack’s season-ending ACL tear. The exception allows the Nets to replace Jack for anyone on a contract up to $3.1 million. The exception was generally thought to be useless, since the Nets aren’t looking to inch above the tax. But with a buyout, they would have more room to make something with it.

As a note, the exception can’t be paired with another player or asset. So the Nets can’t combine the $3.1 million exception with, say, Bojan Bogdanovic’s $3.5 million salary to take back a player making $6.6 million. Any player would have to be able to fit into that exception.

But with the right phone calls, the Nets could potentially find a young, disgruntled player on another team on a rookie contract to fit inside that exception.

The Nets also have two smaller exceptions, as Bobby Marks of The Vertical noted, worth $1.3 and $2.1 million. They could use those exceptions if they find a player they want at a smaller salary and the other team just wants to shed.

Johnson is one of the team’s best players, and they’re already sinking fast. Moving on from him means moving on from one of the team’s better and more well-known players, which could put a hit on already-sinking attendance and the few wins the Nets can scrape by already. He’s generally not thought of as the kind of guy who shakes things up: the laidback Johnson could be perfectly content riding out the season, earning his paycheck, and moving on in the offseason.

It’s also a rare occurrence that an NBA player walks away from guaranteed money: even Deron Williams, who left $16 million on the table with the Nets in his July buyout, made most of that up with his two-year deal with the Dallas Mavericks (and should make up the rest by selling his pricy New York penthouse).

But Johnson said he would talk with his agent this upcoming week, and having a talk usually means there’s a conversation to be had. We might be nearing the end of the Joe Johnson era in Brooklyn a bit sooner than we thought.