Is Joe Johnson overpaid anymore?

Mike Stobe

Here's the number: 123 million, 658 thousand and 89 dollars.

That was the price tag attached to Joe Johnson on July 8, 2010 when he signed a lucrative deal with the Atlanta Hawks. At the time Johnson was an above average shooting guard fresh off his fifth straight season averaging at least 20 points per game in Atlanta, his fourth straight all-star appearance. He had just been named to his first All-NBA team. Johnson had to be considered  an "elite" NBA guard, just not one on the level of Kobe Bryant of Dwyane Wade. And unlike them, he hadn't come close to a ring.

The Hawks were heavily scrutinized for signing the soft-spoken Johnson to such a deal. They were in a bad position: the Knicks were close to signing him, in fact preferred him to Amar'e Stoudemire after they had failed to sign LeBron James. James Dolan was willing to give him a cool $100 million.  The problem for Atlanta was that they now had to build their team around him ... for the next six seasons. Johnson didn't play badly for the Hawks. He made the All-Star team again in 2011 and 2012.

But by 2012, Danny Ferry, the Hawks new GM, and his bosses wanted to rid themselves of Johnson and his "toxic" contract. When Billy King called to congratulate his former Duke teammate on his new job, the conversation quickly turned to Johnson. Was King interested? Yes. The move to Brooklyn was just around the corner.

Brooklyn and King had two rationales for doing it. First, to impress Deron Williams and, secondly, if D-Will did leave, the Nets had a star to build around in Johnson. The Nets sent a package of Jordan Farmar, Johan Petro, DeShawn Stevenson, Anthony Morrow, Jordan Williams, and a 2013 first-round pick that turned into Shane Larkin. They also quietly agreed to swap picks in the 2014 and 2015 draft and because of some CBA intricacy, had to add a second round in 2017.  Once Williams agreed to sign, the Nets supposedly had one of the best backcourts in the league. They trademarked, "Brooklyn's Backcourt" and held a pep rally at Borough Hall to introduce them.  However, the team had committed more than $129 million dollars to the two of them to carry the team.

Johnson's big contract is symbolic to Brooklyn. The Nets were not and are not afraid to spend money, as proven over the past nearly three years. They are constantly scrutinized for trying to buy championships rather than draft and develop a successful unit. Like Johnson, the Nets have one of the highest salaries in NBA history and are looked at in terms of money rather than in terms of on court success. Since coming to Brooklyn, Johnson has been unable to shed that "overpaid" label.

In 2013, Bill Simmons said Johnson had the worst contract in all of basketball. Simmons never mentioned Johnson's game in his spiel about him, but just his extraordinary contract. That was not uncommon in punditry.  In 2014, Johnson got pushed back to fourth, one spot ahead of his "Brooklyn's Backcourt" buddy Williams. In Simmons' piece, he compares the backcourt of Johnson and Williams with the backcourt of Kemba Walker and Gerald Henderson. Again, no mention of the fact that Johnson was pacing a Brooklyn team back from a 10-21 start.

After being elected to the All Star Game for the seventh time of his career by the coaches, many laughed at the decision considering the likes of Kyle Lowry and Lance Stephenson had been passed over.  They deserved the honor more, it was written and said. Pundits and fans compared the contracts of Johnson with the up-and-coming Lowry and Stephenson, both of whom are being paid below their value. It was just another moment where Johnson was ridiculed for signing a large contract as opposed to being praised as Nets' most consistent player through this past season.

This past season, Johnson made the fourth highest salary of any basketball player anywhere, behind Kobe Bryant, Dirk Nowitzki, and Amar'e Stoudemire. Johnson obviously was worth more to his team than Kobe who battled several injuries, then shut it down ... and was rewarded with a $48 million extension. And is there even discussion about Amar'e? Dirk Nowitzki had a great season for the Mavericks, but so did Johnson. So why does only one get all the heat about a monster contract. Pau Gasol made two million less than Johnson this past season and didn't get anywhere near his production. Gasol was constantly complemented for working through his injuries and the poor playing Lakers. Oh yeah, Gilbert Arenas was paid $800,000 more than Johnson in amnesty payments last season.

The gripe with Johnson's deal should be pointed at Rick Sund, the GM who signed him, and the Hawk ownership who approved it. Sund was the GM who offered Johnson the contract, and it would have been criminally insane if Johnson not to accept a deal worth that much.

Johnson has been the Nets go-to player over the past two seasons. Hitting big shot after big shot and carrying the scoring load. He is by most measures, the most clutch player in the NBA, Joe Cool, or Joe Jesus if you prefer. If not for Johnson's flurries in the second half of Game 5 in Toronto, the Nets would have had zero momentum heading into Game 6. If not for Johnson carrying the Nets through the entire fourth quarter of Game 5 against the Heat, the Nets wouldn't have even had a chance to win the game in the final seconds.  For the playoffs, he averaged 21.7 points on 53.3 percent shooting overall and 41.3 percent from deep, playing 39 minutes per game.

Just about every successful moment in Brooklyn Nets basketball history has a connection to Joe Johnson. His worth to this team is as important as anyone else on the roster.

Look around at the other mega-stars on that list of top 10 players. Carmelo Anthony made 100 thousand dollars less than Johnson. Anthony was the best player on a New York Knick team that failed to make the playoffs. Johnson was the best player on a team that made the playoffs and went to the second round. Obviously there is more to those two than just that. But the Knicks are going to pay whatever they have to to make sure Melo remains a Knick, and the Nets are taking on just as much money to have Johnson securely in the fold. So, what is the difference?  Teams do their best to maintain or acquire the best player that will lead to success.

Bottom line is this: stop bashing Joe Johnson for signing the fifth largest contract in NBA history, but praise him for being the Nets best --and most valuable-- player for the past two seasons. Hey, there were minutes in Game 5 of the Heat series when some excited fans thought he might be underpaid!

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