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The inevitability of Joe Johnson

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When Joe Johnson returned to Barclays Center last week, you knew he would leave something behind. Like his buzzer beaters, it was inevitable. And of course, he hit the dagger. After sending Nets fans home happy so many times, he was sending them home sad that night. Steve Simineri caught up with Johnson who talked about his time with the Nets, the “classy” tribute the Nets arranged —“I didn’t have that in Atlanta”— and whether he will be the first Brooklyn Net to enter the Naismith Hall of Fame.

We’d say it’s inevitable.

To put into perspective how long Joe Johnson has been around for, look no further than the fact that he is currently teammates with Boris Diaw, who was involved in a sign-and-trade deal that brought Johnson to Atlanta back in 2005. The 35-year old Johnson signed a two-year, $22 million contract over the summer with the Jazz, who wanted some scoring punch off the bench as well as a veteran leader. His best days may be far in the past, but Utah coach Quin Snyder knows the low-key Johnson is still useful in the right situation.

“Doug Collins told me this a long time ago, he said, know your role, embrace your role and star in your role. And Joe’s a guy that his role with us at 35 is very different from the role that he had while here in Brooklyn and even in Miami last year,” Snyder told reporters after his team’s 101-89 victory in Brooklyn last Monday. “And for a guy he’s got such humility, you wouldn’t know he’s a 7-time All-Star, he’s played in big game after big game and what he gives us not only is his presence in the locker room with Rodney Hood, with a sense of humor which I didn’t know he had until we got him, he’s got a terrific sense of humor, but he also gives us a guy that can come in a game when the game’s tight and be calm, and be poised.”

With Gordon Hayward missing the start of the season due to a finger injury, Johnson started the year as the Jazz’s starting small forward. He then moved to a reserve role in early November upon Hayward's return, snapping Johnson’s streak of 969 straight games as a starter and marking his first action off the bench since the 2003-04 season. He is averaging only 8.5 points in 22.5 minutes a game this season, his lowest totals since his rookie season back in 2001-02. However, he’s exactly the type of reliable, veteran shooter the Jazz need coming off their bench.

“Because I knew they were on the verge of making the playoffs last year, so I’ve been in that situation where you get close and then the next year it’s like you just surpass that,” Johnson told me about signing with Utah. “So they wanted veteran help, guys that can come and help these young guys get over the hump and that’s what I’m trying to do.”

One thing the Jazz like most about Johnson on the floor is his versatility. At 6-foot-7, 240 pounds, Johnson can play either wing position or be deployed as a power forward when the team wants to go smaller late in games. Iso Joe, aka Joe Jesus, is known for his clutch shooting at the end of games and despite not starting, he’s been on the floor to close games.

“I think limiting my minutes would be great. I’m enjoying my role, man,” said Johnson, who has averaged 35.6 minutes per game for his career. “I’ve had a lot of success in this league and obviously playing with this great young team, the skies the limit for us so I’m willing to do whatever it takes to help us get over the top. So I’ve been enjoying it.”

Johnson, who was bought out from his contract by the Nets on Feb. 25 last season, made his first appearance back in Brooklyn last week, and the Nets honored him with a video tribute during the game with highlights of his three-plus seasons (and multiple game-winners) with the team.

“I didn’t have that in Atlanta but I appreciate Brooklyn for that,” said Johnson, who also happened to hit a dagger three-point shot that clinched the game for the Jazz. “That was very classy and obviously we got some great memories here within just a short period of time but like I said, I met a lot of great people and friendships that continue to grow.”

Johnson's durability and consistency are among the many things that are overrated about quiet and unassuming swingman. Last Febrary, his streak of games with at least one field goal ended at 937 games. It had been the longest active streak in the NBA and, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, was the eighth-longest in NBA history. Moreover, since the 2003-04 season, only LeBron James has logged more minutes than Johnson.

Among active players, only Dirk Nowitzki, Paul Pierce, Vince Carter and Jason Terry have played in more games than Johnson. The Utah reserve has said that his bounce back isn’t what it used to be, but at age 35, with 15 NBA seasons behind him, Johnson is doing everything he can to take better care of himself as he’s gotten older.

“I get my sleep, man, number one,” said Johnson, who has given up honey buns and Doritos. “And doing a lot of yoga. Obviously my minutes haven’t been high so I’ve been able to do yoga more often because it kind of burns you out a little bit but I can manage that. That’s how I’ve been getting through it.”

As far as his Hall of Fame case goes, well, Johnson is hurt by a few factors. One, he bounced around a bit during his career, playing for the Celtics, Suns, Hawks, Nets, Heat and now Utah. And a Hall of Fame case always looks a lot clearer to people when a player has been with one or two teams. Two, there will always be criticism about Johnson’s team’s failing to advance past the second round of the playoffs.

Basketball Reference gives Johnson a nearly 50 percent chance at Hall of Fame induction, ranking 16th among active players striving for Springfield. Meanwhile, ESPN’s Kevin Pelton’s WARP projections aren’t as favorable for Johnson’s candidacy, as he’s totaled a 69.0 total mark. To put that into context, he is well behind Pierce (194), Carter (152), and Shawn Marion (142). 2014 Hall of Fame inductee Mitch Richmond accumulated a 77.0 career WARP, and even Antawn Jamison posted a 79.7 mark.

But then you can consider Johnson’s seven All-Star appearances — more than recent Hall of Fame shooting guards Richmond (6), Joe Dumars (6), Dennis Johnson (5) and Reggie Miller (5) — and in a class with Kevin McHale, James Worthy, Walt Frazier, Tracy McGrady and Scottie Pippen. While nobody thinks of 20,000 points as a magic number such as 500 homeruns in baseball, all but one eligible player with at least 20,000 career points has been enshrined in the Hall (The only two exceptions will most likely be Tom Chambers and Jamison, who retired in 2014 with 20,042 career points).

Johnson’s 6 points on Sunday night moved him within 8 points of passing Hall of Famer Bernard King for No. 43 on the NBA’s all-tine scoring list. He now has 19,648 points and counting. Furthermore, Johnson’s 1,877 3-point buckets rank ninth all-time, sixth among active players. His advanced stats may not be impressive, but his consistent scoring has added up and he doesn’t plan to stop racking up points anytime soon.

“I’m not going to put no time limit on it,” said Johnson, who has averaged 16.6 points, 4.0 rebounds and 4.1 assists across 1,182 games. “My body feels great, I’m taking care of my body, that’s the main thing and if I can continue to play I’ll keep going.”

In all, what you make of Johnson’s Hall of Fame case depends on what you make of the Hall of Fame. While he is a first ballot “Keep Getting Them Checks” Hall of Famer, the kid from Little Rock is still having fun and not thinking about Springfield just yet.

“Honestly it hasn’t crossed my mind,” said Johnson, who will have cleared more than $220 million by the time his contract with Utah is up. “Obviously I started playing the game just for the love, not the accolades. But you got to take with comes with it and it’s part of it. But I’m still enjoying it man, I haven’t looked ahead of what it’s going to be like when I’m done.”

All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Stats are accurate as of January 10. Email Steven Simineri at ssimineri@fordham.edu and follow him on Twitter @SSimineri