The Brooklyn Nets brought in Joe Johnson to win a championship with their incumbent point guard Deron Williams. It didn’t work.
By Chip Murphy
Jul. 2, 2012 is a day that will forever live in infamy for the Brooklyn Nets.
It marks two of the worst transactions in recent NBA history; when the Nets swapped five scrubs and a first round pick with the Atlanta Hawks for Joe Johnson and the four-years and $90 million left on his contract, then subsequently signed incumbent free agent point guard Deron Williams to a six-year, $98.7 million deal.
Ownership and management relished what they thought was a victory, if only they knew what an incredible failure it would become.
You see this wasn’t just about basketball. The Nets were all set to move into their brand new arena in their brand new city. They wanted at least one new star to show off to their fans, and after failing to acquire Dwight Howard, Johnson would have to do. The Williams-Howard pick-and-roll never materialized, but the league was looking forward to what the two All-Star guards could do together.
Could it work? Johnson was notorious in Atlanta for his ball hogging and routinely averaged upwards of 15 shots per game. Williams was a point guard who liked to score and control the ball for a majority of the game.
2012-13 was the first season which Williams and Johnson played together, and the expectations were high. The Nets started off red hot cruising to a record of 11-4, before dropping 10 of their next 13 resulting in the firing of head coach Avery Johnson. Brooklyn rallied under interim head coach P.J. Carlesimo to the franchise’s first winning season since 2005-06, 49-33. The Nets played the Chicago Bulls to seven games, but were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs.
Johnson’s first season in Brooklyn had him trying to focus on a smaller role. The offense didn’t run through him, but through a 24-year-old Brook Lopez. Pre-ankle problems, Lopez dominated leading the squad in PER, win shares, and points.
Johnson on the other hand, averaged his lowest points total since the 2002-03 season and lowest field goal attempts and usage percentage since the 2004-05 season. In fact, Joe was sixth on the entire squad in usage percentage. It might say more about the coaching than Johnson when you see that Marshon Brooks was using more plays than Johnson was.
By this time Johnson had begun his transition into strictly a spot up shooter who rarely finished at the rim, but this year he was just bad. According to NBA Savant, Johnson only attempted 110 shots in the restricted-area, but he made just 52 of those attempts. Look at that chart, he attempted 355 mid-range jump shots. 355! Unless you’ve lived under a rock lately you probably heard that teams are trying to discourage that shot.
As for Williams, there was foreshadowing of the injury problems to come as his ankles began acting up and he missed multiple games due to those issues. When he was healthy though, he was excellent.
According to Basketball-Reference.com, when Johnson and Williams were on the court together they were plus-3.9 points per 100 possessions in 69 games. Yes, they could’ve done a lot worse but it’s likely not the electric advantage the Nets were hoping for when they brought Johnson in. For example: Johnson and Lopez were plus-6.8.
Then came the infamous 2013-14 season. Jason Kidd had just retired and wanted to coach, so he was brought in because Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov was enamored with Kidd’s star power. The mega deal from hell was the draft day trade with the Boston Celtics. The franchise ruiner that sent four first round picks to Beantown in exchange for a couple of aging stars on their last legs, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett.
The Nets traded for Pierce and Garnett thinking they were putting a championship team together, but they quickly learned that wasn’t the case. Lopez missed a majority of the season due to injury and the Nets struggled to just 44 wins, before being bounced in the second round of the playoffs.
The biggest problem with that team was that no one could put the ball in the basket. The Nets were 21st in points per game and Williams averaged his lowest point total since his rookie season, while Pierce averaged the lowest total of his career.
Johnson on the other hand, was named an All-Star. Despite his scoring going down for the second year in a row, his shooting percentages and PER both increased. His shot chart looks a hell of a lot better too, despite the 297 mid-range jumpers. Seriously 297.
In April of 2015, Paul Pierce told ESPN’s Jackie MacMullan that the situation in Brooklyn was, “Horrible,” blaming the attitudes of the veteran players who he said didn’t want to play or practice. Pierce also spoke frankly about Williams.
“Before I got there, I looked at Deron as an MVP candidate, but I felt once we got there, that’s not what he wanted to be. He just didn’t want that. I think a lot of the pressure got to him sometimes. This was his first time in the national spotlight. The media in Utah is not the same as the media in New York, so that can wear on some people. I think it really affected him.”
Perhaps Pierce had a problem with the fact that Williams was averaging 79.0 touches per game, according to NBA stats, and the former Celtic just 47.9. Williams dominated the ball. In his defense Brooklyn was at their best with him on the court with an offensive rating of 108.3 and a net rating of 5.2. With Williams off the court, the Nets O-rating plummeted to 100.0 with a net rating of minus-6.9. In 2013-14, Williams constituted a positive 12.9 points per 100 possessions difference when on the court. The problem? He missed 18 games.
After the disappointing finish to the 2013-14 season, the Nets decided not to attempt to re-sign Pierce which left the Nets a team without an identity. Where they still contending or were they about to blow things about and start rebuilding? Unfortunately it took them yet another new coach to figure out they were doing everything wrong. Jason Kidd left for the Milwaukee Bucks amidst problems with management and former Memphis Grizzlies head coach Lionel Hollins took over, leading the team off a cliff.
Williams missed 14 more games due to injury and his numbers went down in every offensive category; points, assists, PER, and O-rating. He shot just 38 percent from the field and had arguably his worst offensive season since he was a rookie.
As embarrassing as last season was for Williams, it wasn’t much better for Joe. It was his lowest scoring output while he was with the Nets and lowest since 2002-03. As per usual, he was crushing the Nets on defense while on the court as the team had a rating of 106.2 which dipped all the way to a 102.3 when he was out of the game.
Johnson’s biggest inefficiency was, once again he took a bundle of mid-range shots, this time nearly 300. It wouldn’t have been as bad except for the fact that he only made them at a 39.2 percent clip. It led people to believe that Joe just didn’t have what it took to get to the rim anymore, and combine that with his inability to guard and you get a serious problem.
The Nets finished with another disappointing record, 38-44, and were bounced in the first round of the playoffs.
That was the theme of the Joe Johnson-Deron Williams era in Brooklyn. Disappointing. Seriously though, it wasn’t tough to predict that dark days were coming. The Johnson trade was criticized almost as brutally as the Celtics trade. The only way Brooklyn could justify those moves is if they won a championship and they never came close.
The backcourt that the Nets once thought could help bring them that championship went just 131-115 in three seasons together won only one playoff series. Ultimately, the Nets failed miserably in their near $200 million investment.