In August of 2005, the Phoenix Suns and Atlanta Hawks completed a sign-and-trade for restricted free agent Joe Johnson, allowing Johnson to leave a secondary role with in Phoenix on a five-year deal to become All-Star “Iso-Joe” in Atlanta. That was the last time Johnson tested the free agent market in his career: he signed a maximum six-year deal to stay with the Hawks early in 2010’s free agency period.
That six-year deal comes to a close after this season, and Johnson will truly test the free agent market for the first time since that sign-and-trade in 2005. When asked about his motivations, Johnson was clear: it’s got nothing to do with the money, it’s got to do with the victories. Per Andy Vasquez of the Bergen Record:
“Winning. Winning is going to be important to me,” Johnson told The Record when asked about his impending free agency. “I’ve made enough money, man, throughout my career. So, yeah, winning will definitely be top priority for me.”
Johnson’s not wrong about the money. According to Basketball-Reference.com, he’s up to $198.6 million in career earnings, which is enough to buy you a shoe closet the size of the median one-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn.
Johnson, as Vasquez notes, has never won a championship in his 15-year NBA career, and has only made it out of the second round of the playoffs once in ten playoff appearances — in 2005 with the Phoenix Suns. That lack of winning has to wear on a veteran who’s a starter on a team that’s opened three consecutive seasons slowly: 10-21 under Jason Kidd, 8-12 last year under Lionel Hollins, and now a dismal 4-13 with numerous close losses. It also can’t help that Johnson himself is in the midst of his worst season, shooting under 35 percent from the field and 27 percent from three-point range.
The Nets don’t pose the best landing spot for Johnson. He wants to win, and the Nets don’t project to be a championship contender any time soon; they have a decent nucleus in Brook Lopez, Thaddeus Young, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, and potentially Chris McCullough, but barring a shocking trade or free agency signing, that doesn’t project as a high-quality team. The lack of future draft picks doesn’t help matters, either.
He doesn’t sound that different from veteran Alan Anderson last year, who left the Nets for the Wizards for the exact same winning reason.
Beyond Johnson’s desires to win, there’s reason to believe the Nets may not mind letting him go. Johnson’s expiring deal is a big $24.9 million price tag coming off the books, and the Nets will gladly renounce his “cap hold” to free up that space and pursue other players in free agency. But in doing that, the Nets will not be allowed to sign Johnson to a deal that would then bring them above the salary cap (other than a cap exception).
For example: say the Nets, armed with $40 million in cap room, sign three key free agents that take up every dollar of that space. Given that a max contract next year will open up at $27 million, it’s not hard to imagine that possibility. That means the Nets could only offer Johnson one of their cap exceptions, the largest being the room mid-level exception (starting at around $5.6 million). Johnson may command just that amount, but as an aging scorer, he might not provide that kind of value.
If the season continues to spiral, the Nets could also look to deal Johnson at the trade deadline. The NBA has not valued expiring contracts at the deadline much in recent years, but Johnson’s $25 million chunk combined with the salary cap rising a projected $20 million this offseason could be sneakily valuable. But putting together any trade that both protects Brooklyn’s future financial flexibility and works for another team is a tricky balance; either the Nets would have to take on players on multi-year contracts, or another team would have to give up significant talent for an aging, struggling Johnson.
Johnson has been the steadiest player in Brooklyn Nets history — it’s why we ranked him so highly in our all-time Brooklyn Nets rankings. But given how this season is going and what he wants, it seems like that time is coming to a close.
NorthJersey.com — Nets: Window closing for Joe Johnson
ed. note: The original version of this article stated that Joe Johnson had never played in the Conference Finals. He played once, in 2005.