Why Joe Johnson Needs To Return To Shooting Guard

Joe Johnson, DeMar DeRozan
Joe Johnson (AP)

Joe Cool. The Armadillo Cowboy. Joe Jesus. Joe Johnson has been the most consistent Nets player throughout his time in Brooklyn, in play if not in moniker. Every other starting spot is racked with questions, but Johnson is entrenched. But there’s one question that could help fill the rest of the starting lineup: Should Joe Johnson be a shooting guard or a small forward?

To backtrack, we might not have this discussion if Brook Lopez hadn’t broken his right foot in December. It was that injury combined with a floundering 10-21 start that prompted Jason Kidd to get creative: he settled on the now-famous ‘longball’ lineup with Johnson at small forward, which helped propel the Nets to a 34-17 finish to the season.

But longball is dead. The creator is now the ruler of all things roundball in Milwaukee, the disruptor is backing up the Splash Brothers, and its greatest offensive mismatch is doing the John Wall in the nation’s capital. Even if the Nets wanted to run a similar system, they just don’t have the personnel for it.

Putting Joe Cool back at the “2” just makes too much sense.

Joe Johnson
Joe Johnson (AP)
Keeping Johnson at small forward weakens the Nets’ rotation. If he’s seeing the majority of his minutes at one of the forward spots, that likely makes Alan Anderson the primary shooting guard, with other minutes going to 20-year-old Sergey Karasev or 2nd-rounder Markel Brown. If it’s Jarrett Jack joining Deron Williams in the starting backcourt, we would see important minutes for Marquis Teague which is, uh, not ideal.

One of those three may play himself into a rotation spot, but let him earn it by production, not by design. Returning Johnson to the position where he was a six-time All-Star gives the Nets at least two established professionals (including Bogdanovic) at every position, regardless of the starters alongside the Williams-Johnson-Lopez troika, giving the Nets a legitimate ten-man roster.

There’s nothing that suggests the difference between Johnson at small forward and shooting guard is some monstrous chasm. If you believe in PER as a broad record, Johnson posted a 17.1 PER as a shooting guard this past season, compared to a below-average 14.8 as a small forward, according to data from 82Games.

The five most-used lineups featuring Johnson at small forward this past year produced only .02 more points per possession on average than the five most-used lineups with Joe at shooting guard in 2012-2013 (1.125 v. 1.105). That’s even including lineups in the latter group that possessed such offensive dynamos as Kris Humphries, Gerald Wallace, Jerry Stackhouse’s ghost, and the shooting-deficient Reggie Evans. The difference is slight.

So then, what other benefits does Joe Cool gain at the 2? You could argue that Johnson, at 33 years old, may no longer be quick enough to check quicker guards. But conversely, they’re not strong enough to guard him. Joe can use every bit of his 6’7”, 240-lb frame to post up, dip under, rip through, outsmart, and exploit nearly every two-guard in the East. Who is this great challenge that he can no longer handle?

Is it Demar DeRozan?

So, no. Johnson has scored 19.2 points on a 47%-38%-80% line in 17 games against Toronto’s star in the regular season. That doesn’t even include the scorching hot playoff series Johnson had against DeRozan’s Raptors, guarded primarily by Terrence Ross and DeRozan. Neither could match his physicality and it seemed at times that Johnson could score at will.

How about Bradley Beal?

Though this matchup is only in its infancy, Johnson does not seem to have much offensive trouble here either. 16.8 points on a 52%-39%-71% line is nothing to dismiss. He also had one of his signature moments against the very same Mr. Beal when he sunk a long two-point jumper to give the Nets the lead in a double-overtime game in Brooklyn’s inaugural season.

New Hornets guard, noted ear-blower Lance Stephenson?

It seems like Stephenson’s antics don’t seem to affect Joe Jesus any more than they do LeBron James. Johnson scores 17.2 points on 43%-41%-95% in his career against Born Ready. It would be remiss not to mention that Stephenson has been much more effective against Joe since he started receiving 30+ minutes against him, and he has outplayed him in a few of those contests. He also shoots high percentages against Johnson but their overall production is similar. So this one’s closer to a wash.

Iman Shumpert?

Again, no. The ballyhooed magic of the defensive stalwart from across the East River does not work on Johnson. In fact Johnson is probably what causes Shumpert to wake up in cold sweats in the middle of the night. The Georgia Tech product gets torched by Johnson to the degree of 20.1 points on a 44%-49%-70% line.

Perhaps Dwyane Wade.

This one’s been a problem. Johnson has only managed 17.4 points on a meager 40/29/79 line in his long history against Flash. Recent history hasn’t been too kind either as Wade has outscored Joe in 12 of their last 13 matchups dating back to 2010. Of course, Wade only faced the Nets in one of their four regular season matchups as Heat coach Erik Spoelstra preserved his body. It seems warranted to note that Wade seemed hapless in some late round playoff games. There’s optimism, as an aging Wade will not always be at 100%.


Jimmy Butler, too.

Butler possesses both the stature (6’7” and 220 pounds), and the intelligence to challenge Johnson both mentally and physically. He puts those talents to use, limiting Johnson to 13.3 points on a 41%-35%-68% line. They’ve had a see-saw affair: Johnson and Butler have produced nearly identical box scores since first pitted against each other in big minutes.

Anyone who watched the 2013 playoff series against the Bulls noticed this as well, as Butler made Johnson, limited by plantar fasciitis, work for everything he got. Nothing comes easy against the Marquette standout. Not even face-pokes.

Those are the toughest tests that Johnson would have to face in a move back to the two in matchups with the Eastern Conference contenders (and the Knicks). He aces most of them, so I see no reason why he shouldn’t play the majority of his minutes there. The offensive gains with Johnson at the three were negligible, and it throws off the entire roster to put him there.

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