Brooklyn Nets starting 2-guard Joe Johnson has been branded with the "overrated" tag since the summer of 2010, when the Atlanta Hawks awarded the then 21 point per game scorer and solid defender with a six year, $120 million dollar contract.
What is interesting about that "overrated" tag is nobody else, from the media to other teams in the league, overrates Joe Johnson. He's never been seriously mentioned as an MVP candidate and has earned one All-NBA third team bid.
All the "overrating," or perhaps more appropriately, over compensating, was done by the Atlanta Hawks front office. They knew they couldn't bag LeBron James in 2010, so they over-zealously pursued a quality player in Johnson to ensure that their organization remained respectable.
Before the Hawks traded him to the Nets in 2012, Johnson more or less continued to do his job. Yes, his scoring dropped by about 10 percent from 21 to 18.5 points a game the last two years. But so did his minutes and shot opportunities thanks to a stagnant Hawks offense and teammate Josh Smith's increased role in it.
Now Johnson is playing for a New York market team, and the question re-emerges as to whether he can "earn" his $20 million salary in 2012-13. Hardly likely, considering that LeBron James will be putting up his usual 28 points, 7 assists, and 8 rebounds a game for only $17 million next year.
However, Johnson can make some marked improvements in his game next season that will make him an invaluable player, notwithstanding that "overrated" tag due to NBA managements' financial wizardry and no fault of his own.
In 2009-10, Johnson averaged 21 points on 46 percent shooting overall, including 37 percent from beyond the three point line. He was a lethal jump shooter from all areas of the floor, but also an effective slashing guard who averaged 3.5 free throw attempts a game.
Moreover, Johnson was one of the best passing 2-guards in the NBA at five assists a game.
This season, Johnson should return to 2009-10 form by way of playing with an elite point guard in Deron Williams. Williams will do his own share of slashing to the basket and kick the ball out to Johnson for a number of open shots.
When Johnson takes on play making responsibilities, he will have a variety of targets to choose from. In one potential line-up, Johnson may be surrounded by power forward Mirza Teletovic, center Brook Lopez and sharp shooting guard C.J. Watson.
Each of these teammates are high scorers with considerable shooting range. When spread across the floor, they will give Johnson will plenty of opportunities to exercise his creativity as a play maker.
Joe Johnson's playoff numbers for the past three seasons have been mediocre—not worth $15 million a year, let alone twenty.
In 29 playoff games since the 2009-10 season, Johnson has averaged a tepid 18 points per game on almost as many shots. In last year's six game playoff loss to the Boston Celtics, Johnson's field goal percentage was an anemic 37 percent.
However, it cannot be stressed enough that Johnson's sup-par offensive performance was with an equally mediocre Atlanta Hawks offense.
In the 2005 NBA playoffs, when Johnson was playing on a Phoenix Suns squad with future hall of fame point guard Steve Nash, the then 23-year-old shooting guard averaged 19 points per game on an outstanding 50 percent shooting from the field.
Johnson will be operating on a far more versatile and fluid offense in Brooklyn than with the Atlanta Hawks squad. Opposing half-court defenses will be forced to spread the floor against the Nets next season, and as a result, expect Johnson's playoff numbers to improve dramatically in 2013.
The 6'8", 225 pound Johnson has the lateral quickness to defend 2-guards, against whom he can also overpower with his unusual strength at that position.
Johnson is also big enough to adequately defend against undersized small forwards around the corners and the baseline.
Johnson has proven success at both positions. According to www.82games.com, opposing shooting guards and small forwards had player efficiency ratings of below 15 (the league average) against Johnson.
While Johnson does struggle to defend against point guards, C.J. Watson and Deron Williams will assume that responsibility for a vast majority of the time next season.
Johnson's defense is also invaluable during "clutch time," which is defined as games with less than five minutes left with either team up by fewer than five points. The 2011-12 Hawks had a 22-6 record with Johnson on the floor in these scenarios.
A salient point, but worth mention given Johnson will be 31 years old going into this season. Over the last 10 seasons, Johnson has missed a total of only 50 games (or, for perspective, five games a season) while averaging over 35 minutes a night.
These statistics are a testament to Johnson's endurance, but ironically, they are also a red flag going into next season. How long can Johnson continue to log in the same number of minutes for an average of 77 games a season? And will he have enough in the tank come playoff time?
Fortunately for the Nets, they have two offensively talented guards coming off the bench in C.J. Watson and Marshon Brooks.
Both are capable of generating offense at around 25 minutes a night. Because the Nets have depth at the guard position, Johnson should be able to play a low 30 minutes a night and be well rested come next Spring.
What New York basketball needs is quieter stars who play at a high level at both ends of the floor.
Joe Johnson may not be an NBA icon like Carmelo Anthony or Amare Stoudemire, but he's an invaluable number two option on a championship contender.
Johnson's play at both ends of the floor will be a significant factor in determining if the Nets can usurp the Knicks as the best basketball team in New York.
If Johnson consistently does a little better than he did as an Atlanta Hawk the last two seasons, the Nets have a legitimate chance at making the second round of the NBA playoffs next year.
In that case, the revenue coming into the Barclays Center through die hard New York basketball fans and advertising dollars will well justify Johnson's enormous paycheck.