Five years ago, the Brooklyn Nets made a move that set the course of the franchise for the next few seasons. Although the deal was agreed to on July 2nd, 2012, the trade to acquire Joe Johnson from the Atlanta Hawks was made official on the 11th.
The next day, Johnson was joined by Deron Williams at Borough Hall in Brooklyn for a celebration of “Brooklyn’s Backcourt.” The Nets were so excited they moved to trademark the phrase four days later.
The details of the deal didn’t matter so much at the time: Heading to Atlanta were: Jordan Farmar, Anthony Morrow, Johan Petro, DeShawn Stevenson, Jordan Williams, a first round pick (18th overall that became Shane Larkin) and a second rounder in 2017 (31st overall that became Tyler Dorsey).
Also, in a side deal that wasn’t announced at the time, the Nets and Hawks agreed to swap first round picks in 2014 and 2015. There was no swap in 2014, but in 2015 Atlanta took Kelly Oubre with what would have been Brooklyn’s pick at 15, leaving the Nets with Chris McCullough at 29.
Those pieces sent to the Hawks represented tons of salary cap space and an opportunity for the Hawks to take their franchise in a new direction, which they did, winning 60 games in 2015-16. For the Nets, Johnson’s acquisition meant something a bit different.
Johnson joined a team that was in transition. The Nets had just completed their fifth straight losing season and were leaving New Jersey with the hopes of increased notoriety, success, and respect in Brooklyn. The Nets had a blueprint for greatness and hopes of a championship within five years. To help with that goal, they traded for (and later resigned) Deron Williams as well as extended Brook Lopez to a max contract (Fun fact: the extension was signed on the day the Johnson trade was made official.) With their trio in place and a brand new building on Atlantic Avenue, Brooklyn went to work in black-and-white.
At the time, I wasn’t a fan of the (then potential) acquisition, writing:
After taking everything into account, would the Nets be wise to go after Joe Johnson? Yes, if he was 4 years younger and if his contract was 2 years and $35 million shorter. Since he and it isn't, stay the hell away! Johnson does represent an upgrade at the shooting guard position right now, but in a salary cap league, playing for the short term and trying to appease your star player with a player making way more than his on court production warrants is a franchise breaker waiting to happen. When the Nets go star chasing again, having a declining player in his mid 30s making $24 million makes it extremely difficult to add a key piece to the roster.
In retrospect, I might have overstated that a bit. Having Johnson and his salary didn't affect how the Nets went about building their rosters or which players they chose to target (as we would find out one year later). Also, Johnson was only 31 years old at the time of the trade so it was safe to believe he still had some good years ahead of him.
And most importantly, even if he was in the second (or third) tier of star players, he was still an All-Star caliber player and the best shooting guard option for the Nets since Vince Carter’s days in Jersey.
All things considered, the trade worked out pretty decently for Brooklyn. In his three and a half seasons in Brooklyn, Johnson averaged close to 15 points a night on a 43/37/81 shooting split. On the surface, those numbers aren’t spectacular, but there was more to him then that. He and Brook Lopez are the only Brooklyn Nets to appear in the All Star Game and more importantly, was someone the team could count on late in close games and in the playoffs. It’s those moments that stand out and will always earn Johnson a warm welcome when he visits Brooklyn.
Ask Kevin Garnett...
One thing that was consistent throughout Johnson’s time with the Nets was chaos. Between the turnover in management, playing under FIVE head coaches in three and a half seasons, conflict (around the 30 minute mark) with Deron Williams, roster turnover, and dramatic change of fortunes from the summer of 2013 up to his exit in the winter of 2016, Johnson was one of the few Nets you could count on to give you a good effort every night out.
In any environment, it’s always important to have people you know you can count on and turn to without any fuss or trouble. Johnson was a steadying force in a sea of trade rumors and questionable decisions. Reed Wallach wrote this about Joe last year:
As for Johnson's legacy in Brooklyn, it will probably be marred by the Coney Island roller-coaster it has been. There was the Deron Williams woes, the Celtics trade, the Kidd issue, and now the reconstruction. Somewhere in there is that soft-spoken Johnson. People will forget just how much he did for this franchise that has failed to reach the lofty goals ownership has set, whether it be guard LeBron James in the second round of the 2014 playoffs, or heat up in the fourth quarter and carry the team home, Johnson did his fair share of heavy lifting.
When Joe Johnson came to Brooklyn in 2012, he was joining a team that hoped to consistently make deep playoff runs. When he left Brooklyn in 2016, the team had made their initial foray into the rebuilding process after a mostly unsuccessful and expensive run of basketball. As we think of the trade that brought him north, we should think of it as a well thought out gamble that worked in isolation and would have been perfect as it was if that were the last major move made by the previous administration.
Johnson fulfilled his role and equipped himself well As the Nets look to the future, there’s a lesson they can take from how Joe Johnson played in Brooklyn and apply it to how they do business. If you stay cool, be dependable, and shine in the biggest moments, you can make a long lasting positive impression on everyone around you.