Be Careful What You Wish For With Joe Johnson

Joe Johnson is a great player. He has great length, great handles, a nice shooting touch, and he sees the floor. He’s also about as unselfish a player as you can get from an All-Star. He’d be a nice addition to any team, particularly the Heat.

But there are plenty of issues to worry about.

For starters, let’s rid ourselves of the notion that Johnson is worth a max contract. That’s flat ridiculous.

When the Hawks reportedly offered Johnson a four-year $60 million contract extension last summer, even that was arguably a big stretch. It ignored his age, his style of play, and his lack of production in key situations. But at least you could see the logic. The Hawks were a team on the rise, and Johnson was playing a key role. The Hawks were paying him as much for his past as his future. They were paying for a beloved Atlanta fixture to stay.

After having rejected that proposal, he figures to seek even more on the open market. A maximum five year contract would run his new team about $18.3 million per season.

So where does Johnson actually rank in the NBA? Let’s ignore need for a second, and focus solely on ability.

Amare, Bosh, Carmelo, Deron, Duncan, Durant, Gasol, Howard, Kobe, LeBron, Nash, Nowitzki, Paul, Roy and Wade and are inarguably better than Joe Johnson. You can’t even make a case that Johnson is better than any of one of these fifteen guys, right?

Billups, Bogut, Boozer, Bynum, Curry, Evans, Garnett, Ginobili, Granger, Ming, Parker, Pierce, Rondo and Rose are all guys you could make a case for over Johnson. There are several others you could add to this list, but there’s also several guys on this list you’d take Johnson over.

So we’ve established that Johnson is not a Top 15 player in the NBA. Let’s say he falls somewhere between number 16 and 30. There’s no question that type of contributor is a nice player to have on your team. But how much is such a player worth?

To answer that question, consider his age. Johnson will turn 29 in about a month. By the end of a five year contract, he’d be 33 years old. At the speed at which the game is being played these days, a backcourt contributor’s prime is probably somewhere between 25 and 29, or perhaps even younger than that. Kevin Durant is 21 years old. I’m not suggesting they all become useless at 30, but the vast majority become nothing more than overpaid role players. It would appear that Joe Johnson has maybe two years left of his prime. At 33, he’d be making $21 million. Warning!

It gets worse.

Consider his fit with the Heat.

Johnson runs more isolation plays than just about any guard in the league. His whole game is predicated on dominating the ball. Do you want to bring in a swingman next to Wade who’s going to dominate the ball for the next five years? Particularly for someone who produces points as inefficiently as Johnson does? After all, Johnson is a career 44% field goal shooter.

Johnson is huge for a wing player at 6’7″. He presents a match-up problem for precisely that reason – the Hawks post him up anytime a small player guards him. He relies on his size and shooting skill to get a jumper off over the defender. In the Heat rotation, however, he’d be forced to play at the small forward position. His height advantage would disappear. And he’s not exactly what you’d call fleet of foot either. He lacks an explosive first step to get around taller defenders, and he lacks the elevation to shoot over them. Therefore, at the three spot in South Florida he may be forced to take even more contested jumpers, which could potentially render him ineffective.

Johnson is, after all, a solid spot-up shooter. That’s a perfect complement to a guy like Wade would likes to drive to the basket, draw in the defenders, and kick the ball out to open shooters. But do you really want to pay a spot-up shooter $18.2 million per season? Andrew Morrow, far and away the most proficient 3-pointer shooter in the NBA over the past two seasons, does it for $736,420.

And with all of his glorious height, Johnson rebounds at a rate worse than even Dwyane Wade. He’s averaged just over 4 per game for his career. Do you really want that from your small forward?

Don’t misconstrue my message.

Joe Johnson is a great player. And if the Heat were to sign Chris Bosh or Amare Stoudemire, he’d be a great addition. Perhaps even the last piece for a legitimate title run. At crunch time, I can only imagine how effective the backcourt would be with Wade shifting to the point and Johnson to the off guard, with Bosh/Stoudemire commanding the paint. It’s damn exciting.

But at a price closer to the $12 million per season range.

I know many of us don’t like to hear it, but it’s prudent to consider the possibility that the returns of a 29 year old will diminish in time. The simple fact remains that he is going to require a 5-year contract wherever he ultimately goes. And with Wade already 28 himself, should the Heat not win it all in the next couple of seasons, two max contract players over the age of 30 could prove crippling to the organization for years to come.

This game has evolved. Power forwards can last a long time, quality centers even longer. But when you have a borderline all-star in the backcourt to begin with trying to stay in front of all the speed around in today’s game, one should be very careful before issuing maximum dollars.

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