The Brooklyn Nets will never do enough to justify their historic price tag nor fully rid themselves of the damage done by the injury bug, but this group is fighting to salvage what it can of this season.
Credit this team for trying, if nothing else.
Brooklyn has opened 2014 with eight wins in its first nine games. This hasn't been a scheduling break, either—the Nets have knocked off the Oklahoma City Thunder, Golden State Warriors, Atlanta Hawks (twice) and Miami Heat during this stretch.
So, who's responsible for this resurgence? The man who couldn't be more of a Brooklyn Net if he tried, Joe Johnson.
On a team defined by historically reckless spending, Johnson's mega deal turns the most heads. The 32-year-old, whose last All-Star appearance came in 2011, has $48 million headed his way over the next two seasons, via ShamSports.com:
Yet, like most of his high-priced peers, he's undeniably talented. Not back-up-the-Brink's-truck talented, but supremely gifted if you can get past the size of his money clip:
Joe Johnson's jump shot is so pretty. Love watching him play. Alway felt he's under-appreciated because of his contract.— Eddy Rivera (@erivera7) January 22, 2014
He's also uniquely skilled when it comes to this roster.
With Lopez on the shelf, Paul Pierce fighting a losing battle with Father Time (40.7 field-goal percentage) and Deron Williams still battling his bad wheels, this group is limited in terms of offensive creativity.
Johnson, a 13-year-veteran, just so happens to specialize in dialing his own number. He's not a black-hole scorer by any stretch (career 4.3 assists), but when his team needs a bucket, he's willing and able to rise to the occasion.
He has handles, a silky smooth shooting stroke, enough athleticism to get where he needs to go and the strength to move people out of his path if he needs to. He doesn't quite have the stat line of a scoring master (16.3 points), but he definitely has the across-the-board talent of a jack of all trades.
"He’s one of the most versatile players [offensively]," Shaun Livingston said, via Tim Bontemps of the New York Post. "Being able to put the ball on the floor, being able to spot up and shoot, being able to post up, being able to play the pick and roll, make the pass of the pick and roll, floaters … he can do a lot of different things."
The secret to Johnson's dominance is that there is no secret. He can beat defenders in any different number of ways.
He's seen good-to-great returns on all five of his most common methods of attack this season, via Synergy Sports (subscription required)—isolations, pick-and-roll ball-handler, post-ups, spot-up shots and coming off screens.
He's turned in top-50 production on off-screen shots (1.09 points per possession, 20th overall), running the pick-and-roll (0.85, 42nd) and posting up his defender (0.88, 50th). His work as both a spot-up shooter (1.13, 53rd) and isolation scorer (0.82, 65th) leave him just on the outside looking in at the top 50.
For a team that's struggled to score all season (103.1 points per 100 possessions, 16th), the Arkansas native has quietly emerged as a steady source of offense:
.@TheJoeJohnson7: Last 6 Games: 147 PTS (24.5 PPG), 17/36 from 3 (47.2%) Prior 6 Games: 47 PTS (7.8 PPG), 4/25 from 3 (16.0%)— NBA.com/Stats (@nbastats) January 21, 2014
A little too quietly, if you ask his coach.
"I think he’s an All-Star," coach Jason Kidd said, via Mike Mazzeo of ESPN New York. "Hopefully he’ll be there representing Brooklyn."
If Kidd made those comments a month ago, he might have been laughed off the sideline. Now, those words aren't nearly as easy to dismiss.
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Johnson said a lot of the credit for his turnaround belongs to his coach.
"He’s been telling me, 'Be ready. We’re coming to you,'" Johnson said, via Bontemps. "It’s not necessarily for me to score. But, if the double-team doesn’t come, he knows I’ll make the right play."
Johnson gives Kidd options.
Who has played the biggest role in Brooklyn's recent success?
He's a natural shooting guard and large for the position (6'8", 225 lbs). He's more than comfortable playing either wing spot, allowing Kidd to mix and match his players around him. This team can go small with Pierce and Kevin Garnett in the frontcourt or throw scary length at the opposition with Johnson and Livingston (6'7") at the guard spots.
There's a certain amount of freedom that a nearly $200 million roster should have.
The Nets made dramatic strides since the start of the year, but have seen more success at the defensive end (100.0 defensive rating since Jan. 1, tied for fourth) than the opposite side (107.5 offensive rating, tied for eighth).
With Williams still a question mark, this roster has a defensive slant to it. Johnson's one of the few regulars who specializes at the other end, and easily the most talented of that bunch.
He's become a rare stabilizing presence, building a reliability not unlike what Lopez used to have. He's the offensive answer for a team that could barely patch together a complete question earlier this season.
He's the key to the Nets finally finding some success and the one now responsible for keeping it in Brooklyn.
Given everything that's happened already this season, it's incredible he even has that chance.