How Joe Johnson Can Make Himself Worth the Money

Is it possible that the Nets' highly paid star can justify his salary?

Joe Johnson is one of the hardest players in the NBA to evaluate. He’s been a very good player for a long time now. He turned the Hawks into a regular playoff contender, even if they never did much damage when they got there. He’s a seven-time All-Star and he helped carry the Nets back to the playoffs in their first year in Brooklyn. There are lots of good things you can say about Joe Johnson.

But he’s also the sixth-highest paid player in the Association in 2014, earning more than all three Heat All-Stars, both Thunder studs and a host of other players that most fans would gladly take over Johnson. At least he’s making less than Gilbert Arenas and Amar’e Stoudemire, right? That opens him up to plenty of criticism as a good-but-not-great player on a team full of bloated salaries.

But even though he hasn’t exactly dominated in his two years in Brooklyn, Johnson has gotten a rep for being money in crunch time. While actual buzzer beaters remain rare, Johnson hit a couple of them in his first season in Brooklyn, and knocked down two game-winners at the horn this season - one in November against Phoenix, another in early January in Oklahoma City that helped spark Brooklyn’s turnaround.

He already has a fairly stellar track record in late-game situations since coming to the Nets. Take a look at his regular season numbers with the clock under two minutes and the scoring margin within three points either way:

Total w/ BKN21403100.563

While his numbers naturally had to regress from last season’s ridiculous clutch performance, Brooklyn still relies on Johnson in just about every crunch-time situation, despite the presence of noted late-game assassin Paul Pierce on the roster.

Johnson shook off a rough go against the Bulls in the 2013 playoffs against Toronto. In the Nets’ seven-game opening round win, Johnson went 4-7 in the final five minutes of games with the margin at +/- 5 points, while also hitting all four of his free throws, helping the more experienced Nets finish at +8 in 19 such minutes of play, per Interestingly, after killing the Raptors’ undersized and overmatched wing defenders with post-ups all series, nearly all of Johnson’s looks in those late-game situations came on either isolations or after a teammate found him for an open look beyond the arc.

For the series, Johnson averaged 21.6 points with an effective field goal percentage (55.9) nearly 10 points better than what he shot in the Nets’ first round flameout a year ago. And after a 2-19 shooting performance in Game 7 against the Bulls in 2013, Johnson went for 26 points on 11-25 shooting in Game 7 versus Toronto, carrying the Nets for stretches when they needed it most, including dropping in 11 straight points at one spot. Even more telling of his improvement from last year's playoffs, the Nets were 14 points better per 100 possessions offensively with Johnson on the court, while defensively the difference was even greater – they posted a 102.5 defensive rating with him playing, and gave up 131 points per 100 possessions with him on the bench, per Good thing the man Kevin Garnett calls Joe Jesus only sat for a total of 50 minutes.

Despite Brooklyn sweeping the season series against Miami, the teams played each other much closer than the Nets’ 4-0 record indicates, in addition to several key absences throughout the season series. As the great Tom Haberstroh of ESPN pointed out, the margins at the end of regulation in the four games were +1, +1, 0 and +1. That’s three one-point Nets’ wins and an overtime victory.

After Miami's Game 1 blowout, one thing became clear: the Nets aren't going to be blowing the Heat out in any of these games. With the pace Brooklyn plays at - 91.4, 25th in the league during the regular season - they simply don't have the chops to pull away from the hyper-efficient Heat. To put it simply: if the Nets are going to steal some wins in this series, clutch play is likely going to matter a good deal.

Johnson could very well be up to the task of carrying Brooklyn when games get tight. For his playoff career, Johnson is 22-53 in the final five minutes of the fourth quarter and overtime. With the way Brooklyn looks to him at the end of games, those shooting numbers are going to have to improve from good to great for the Nets to have a chance when things get tight.

Overall, Johnson has been solid against the Heat this season (19.5 points per game, 51.7 percent from the field), playing much better at home than on the road. He was one of the few Nets to bring it in the series opener, dropping in 17 while sitting the fourth quarter. But in close situations in the regular season, he jacked up 12 shots against the Heat, knocking down five of them, according to Again, good, but not great. Miami has an array of defenders to throw at Johnson – guys like LeBron James, Shane Battier, Rashard Lewis and the like will all probably take a turn guarding him, with James assumedly getting plenty of those looks down the stretch of games - so he’ll have to work harder to get his looks than he did against Toronto. Johnson, for better or for worse, has a reputation as one of the best isolation guys in the NBA, but not too many teams are going to clear out for someone to go one-on-one with the King.

The Nets obviously aren't going to sweep the Heat this time around. Our algorithms have them at just a 13.9 percent chance of advancing after getting whomped in Game 1. But with a team of savvy vets, many of whom hate Miami, this series is going to be a bloodbath. And Joe Johnson is going to have to earn his money.