The discussion of whether the Brooklyn Nets made the right move trading for Joe Johnson will undoubtedly focus on the four years and $89 million remaining on the gargantuan contract he signed in 2010. That'll matter, of course. But let's boil this down to a more fundamental question.
Who was slated to be the second-best team in the Eastern Conference before this trade?
The Bulls? Derrick Rose is likely out until January, and the first year after an ACL tear is usually a problem for an NBA player. (Just ask Al Jefferson). Key reserve center Omer Asik is probably off to Houston, unless the Bulls feel it's worth paying $15 million to a back-up in 2015-16. The Bulls are pushing the luxury tax this year, which could cost them one or two or even all three of Kyle Korver, C.J. Watson and Ronnie Brewer. They're also currently slated to be well over the luxury tax in 2013-14, a threshold owner Jerry Reinsdorf has been reluctant to cross even before the harsher penalties kick in. They already tried to check on Luol Deng's value, so a midseason salary dump could be on the way.
The Celtics? Technically, they were a quarter away from the Finals, but a ton of things broke right for them. Were it not for Al Horford's injury, they are potentially first-round playoff losers last year. Were it not for Rose's injury, they probably fall in the second round of the playoffs. Were it not for Chris Bosh's injury, they may not even put up much of a fight in the conference finals. Now, they're bringing the band back together and expecting better results?
The Pacers? What if they decide Roy Hibbert's offer sheet with the Blazers is too rich and their starting center is Chris Kaman? Hell, what if Hibbert returns and no other moves are made? Are they really that threatening?
The Knicks? That's funny.
The Magic? That's funnier.
The Hawks? They tried this before, and that's why they've moved on.
Clearly, there's a power vacuum in the Eastern Conference next year, barring any other major moves. By trading for Joe Johnson, the Brooklyn Nets have surged right into it, assuming Deron Williams can be convinced to re-sign.
Make no mistake about it: the Nets will be a good team next year if Williams returns as the Nets expect. Williams and Johnson should fit in more seamlessly than people realize, sharing playmaking responsibilities and making each other better. Johnson has a reputation for being ball-dominant in Atlanta, and it's very much deserved, but he also coexisted beautifully with Steve Nash in Phoenix. Also, unlike most point guards, Williams is adept at playing off the ball, running off baseline screens and spotting up. With Johnson's playmaking ability now in the fold, coach Avery Johnson can finally use those elements of Williams' game to his advantage without having to trot out small backcourts.
Johnson is overpaid and he's not getting any younger, but there's a reason he's coveted by fellow players around the league. Back in 2010, when the Chicago Bulls had cap space to chase anyone they wanted, Rose reportedly told management that Johnson was the guy he wanted. Not LeBron James. Not Dwyane Wade. Not Chris Bosh. Certainly not Carlos Boozer. Joe Johnson. (Of course, Johnson stayed in Atlanta and the Bulls were forced to sign Boozer when James, Wade and Bosh went to Miami. Didn't exactly work out well for Rose there.)
But there's a reason Rose wanted Johnson, as irrational as it may seem to fans who watch him dribble around and force shots. Being a point guard is harder than it looks. There's so much dribbling, which seems like it's fun, but really, it's taxing. Taking plays from the coach, trying to get your teammates going ... it adds up. Mental fatigue is common with point guards, and it plays out in many ways. Many struggle defensively. Many disengage once they pass the ball. Many decide it's not worth it to push tempo. Many over-dribble because they're paralyzed and are processing their many responsibilities instead of just playing. They don't do these things because they're selfish; they do these things because they are not robots that coaches can shift into "pass mode" or "score mode" to suit their needs.
With Johnson, though, your point guard doesn't need to carry so heavy a responsibility. Johnson is so talented as a playmaker, so crafty as a pick-and-roll player, that you can let him go to work every so often. Too much of that can be bad; the last seven years in Atlanta are proof. Just enough, though, can mean wonders for a lead guard. Now, he can hand off some responsibility and focus more on the many areas of his game that he would otherwise have to subjugate for the good of the team. For guys like Rose and Williams that have many characteristics of a shooting guard in addition to being elite point guards, this is enticing. For their coaches, it opens up the playbook and allows them to throw many unique looks at defenses.
The Nets' surrounding roster isn't bad either. Gerald Wallace is turning 30 in December, but he quietly put together a really strong second half for a really crummy Nets team last year. As a fourth option, he's about as good as it gets. The Blazers' grand plans to unleash his transition game last year failed because Raymond Felton was his point guard. A whole year with Williams, assuming he re-signs, will be better for him. Brook Lopez, assuming he's re-signed, should be better too. It's a lot easier running pick and pops with two of the best guard playmakers in basketball than facing constant double teams in the low post. Collectively, they're a little short defensively and on the glass, but they can make up for that with their offensive potential.
The beauty of the deal is that the Nets also get to maintain their salary cap exceptions to use to upgrade the rest of the roster. If the Nets re-sign Williams to a five-year, $100 million deal as expected, they have $46.3 million in committed salary, not including cap holds for Brook Lopez and Kris Humphries. If they keep both players, they should be under the luxury tax, and they can use their mid-level exception and bi-annual exception to get talent. If they trade those players and MarShon Brooks for Dwight Howard, they'll be at $64.6 million, which is still enough below the apron to maintain their mid-level and bi-annual exceptions. There's talk of using the mid-level to help lure Mirza Teletovic, a 6'9 Bosnian player that would immediately slide in to be a stretch power forward in the starting lineup. If that fails, the Nets could split up the mid-level and bi-annual exceptions and try to improve their depth. Finally, as NetsDaily notes, the Nets have two small trade exceptions for $3 million and $1.3 million that can be used to find bench help. The roster is shallow now, but it doesn't have to be.
Granted, this is all for next year. In 2016, it's going to be painful to have all these long-term contracts on the books. It's also likely that the Nets' sudden surge in payroll is due to fears that the move to Brooklyn won't receive much interest if it continues with the slow and steady route. That's adding a sense of urgency that has little to do with the conditions of the rest of the league.
At the same time, I can't knock Brooklyn for going for it instead of waiting for the Magic to be ready to trade Dwight Howard. Johnson and Wallace are overpaid, but they're still very productive players. A Williams-Johnson-Wallace-Lopez foursome is certainly worthy of contending in an Eastern Conference that suddenly has a very weak second tier behind the Heat. I don't know if the payroll pain on the back end is worth the move, but I can certainly respect the Nets' position here.
Sure, maybe this team doesn't beat the Heat. But barring a massive change, the Heat are going to be there for several more years -- not one, not two, not three, etc. as James would say. It's pretty unlikely that the second tier of the Eastern Conference is going to be this vulnerable. If the Nets are going to go for it at any point, now's probably the best time.