How Joe Johnson Can Get Back on Track for Brooklyn Nets
What's wrong with Joe Johnson?
With his myriad issues so far this season, perhaps asking "What's right with Joe Johnson?" would be the more appropriate question. The Brooklyn Nets' shooting guard is averaging just over 15 points per game, and his shooting percentage (39.2 percent) is lower than it has ever been since he became a full-time starter back in 2003.
And it isn't just Johnson's scoring that has regressed: His per-36 minute averages in rebounds, assists and steals have all declined this year.
This is, of course, the first time in eight seasons where Johnson wasn't expected to be the alpha male for his team's offense. As a result of the July trade that sent him to Brooklyn, Johnson was forced to assume more of a complementary role that will take some time to get used to.
He's no longer "Iso-Joe", nor should he be on a team that boasts Deron Williams and Brook Lopez, who happen to be two more-than-capable offensive options. Johnson's usage rate in Atlanta was no lower than 24.6 during his seven seasons with the Atlanta Hawks—if he approaches that number in Brooklyn (he's currently at 20.9), it probably won't result in great things for the Nets.
"I'll get a lot more open shots than what I'm accustomed to," said Johnson prior to the season in an interview with Howard Beck The New York Times. "I think this will pay big dividends for us, man."
And while the Barclays Center is named after an organization that deals with dividends on a daily basis, the basketball team that calls the building its home has yet to see much of a return on its summertime investment.
Part of the problem is that the Nets don't use Johnson often enough in his natural position. In three of Brooklyn's five most frequently used lineups, Johnson serves as the de facto small forward. And while he's capable of playing the 3, he's far less effective on both offense and defense according to analysis done by 82games.com. Johnson's Player Efficiency Rating is a solid 16.0 as a shooting guard, and only 9.5 as a small forward.
Of course, his slow start could merely just be a regression from the mean. Johnson may be a six-time All-Star, but that doesn't mean that he's immune from having a shooting slump. The former Hawks standout shot 36.4 percent through first 10 games, but has rebounded fairly well over the past three contests, shooting 21-for-43 from the field (48.8 percent).
"It's coming," said Johnson in an interview with Mike Mazzeo of ESPN New York. "I'm just trying to take what the defense is giving me."
So how can Johnson speed up the process?
For starters, he needs to fall out of love with the mid-range jumper. Johnson's field goal attempts at every distance have declined this season with the exception of the jump shots that he has taken from 10-15 feet. Those are naturally low percentage tries for most NBA players, so it's not surprising that he's only converting those at a 32 percent clip.
Even more troubling is his lack of shots while in the restricted area. Three seasons ago, Johnson attempted 3.7 shots at the rim per night. In 2012-13, that number is down to just 1.5 per game.
At 6'7", 240 pounds, Johnson is physically more imposing than the majority of defenders assigned to check him on a nightly basis. The Nets could easily draw up a few sets that would allow Johnson to use his size to his advantage in the post. Atlanta frequently had Johnson set up on the block against smaller shooting guards, so asking him to play with his back to the basket should be somewhat natural, especially since he averaged 1.01 points per possession in post-up situations last season (per Synergy Sports).
Johnson's shooting chart shows that he's struggling from pretty much everywhere on the floor this season. But if the Nets make it a point to get him better, higher-percentage shots early in games, Johnson will have the confidence to knock down the jumpers that have become his trademark.
Getting their star shooting guard on track as soon as possible should be the Nets' No. 1 priority. Despite his struggles, Brooklyn averages 6.3 additional points per 100 possessions with Johnson on the floor, even when factoring in his suspect defense.
And that defense will likely be improved once he's more engaged on the offensive end of the court. It's not a coincidence that Johnson's Defensive Win Shares this season (0.2) are a career low (via basketball-reference.com).
"He's going to be fine," said Nets' head coach Avery Johnson, while speaking to Stefan Bondy of the New York Daily News. "Hopefully we'll do a better job of getting [him] involved earlier in games."
(Note: All statistics are accurate as of Nov. 27)
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