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Joe Johnson Is a Modern NBA Success Story

After years of ridicule for being the most “overpaid” player in the NBA, the 16-year veteran has won back the masses as a Jazzman by doing what he’s always done — just with a lower profile

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

Joe Johnson has always been defined by money. He has made a little over $200 million in his 16-year NBA career, second behind only Dirk Nowitzki among active players. He’s a seven-time All-Star who is known more for the six-year, $119 million contract he signed with the Hawks in 2010. It was called the worst contract in league history as soon as it was announced, a symbol of everything wrong with basketball’s economic structure. His career was not supposed to outlast that deal, yet here we are in 2017 and he’s still getting buckets and making eight figures a year at age 35. He is still playing at a high level, and is almost single-handedly keeping the Jazz alive in the playoffs. Johnson’s spectacularly unspectacular game has aged beautifully, and he doesn’t appear to be slowing down anytime soon. He has turned the first round of the playoffs into the senior tour, dominating a top-four team out West at an age where many of his peers have long since retired.

The Clippers have had no answer for Johnson, even before Blake Griffin went down with a broken toe. Johnson averaged 19.3 points a game on 55.9 percent shooting in the first four games of the series. After Rudy Gobert injured his knee in the first possession of Game 1, Johnson carried the Jazz to victory, scoring 21 points on 9-of-14 shooting and knocking down a floater in the final seconds to win the game. When Gordon Hayward was held to only nine minutes in Game 4 due to food poisoning, Johnson picked up the slack, scoring or assisting on 22 of Utah’s final 25 points in its 105–98 win. Despite all of the injuries the Jazz have suffered, they are headed back to Los Angeles for a pivotal Game 5 tied 2–2. Without Johnson, the series might already be over.

The Jazz have been a different team when Johnson is on the floor: They have posted their best net rating (plus-5.1) in the 129 minutes he has played in this series, and their worst (minus-12.9) in the 63 minutes he has sat. His ability to space the floor out to the 3-point line at power forward gives their offense the breathing room it needs to survive: Their offensive rating plummets from 121.4 with Johnson to 86.2 without him.

Coming into the series, one of the biggest concerns for the Jazz was whether Johnson would be able to handle Griffin, one of the most physical power forwards in the league. However, he was able to mostly play Griffin to a draw when they were guarding each other, using his old-man strength to prevent Griffin from overwhelming him in the paint and then scoring off the dribble from a wide variety of angles on the other end of the floor. Johnson is not much of a rebounder at this stage of his career, and he can struggle to move his feet laterally and defend in space, but he’s not going to be bullied.

Griffin’s absence has given Johnson an even bigger role to play in the series. The Clippers don’t have a lot of great options at power forward. They can either go big up front with DeAndre Jordan and Marreese Speights, who have a net rating of minus-3.9 in 22 minutes together in the series; go small with less-threatening offensive players like Luc Mbah a Moute, Paul Pierce, and Wesley Johnson; or unearth Brandon Bass and rookie Brice Johnson from the end of the bench. Even if they want to attack Johnson in the pick-and-roll by using his man to screen Chris Paul, Utah can double Paul and force one of the Clippers’ reserve power forwards to make plays off the dribble. The return of Gobert, meanwhile, has allowed Johnson to expend less energy defensively and on the boards, letting him save himself for the final minutes, when the Jazz use him to close out games.

There’s nothing too complicated about the way Johnson plays. He has the size and ballhandling ability to carve out space against almost any defender, and he’s an elite off-the-dribble shooter. At 6-foot-8 and 230 pounds with a 7-foot wingspan, Mbah a Moute is one of the longest and most active perimeter defenders in the NBA, with Synergy Sports placing him in the 92nd percentile of isolation defenders and the 95th percentile when defending the screener in the pick-and-roll. Yet there was absolutely nothing he could do when Johnson started rolling in the fourth quarter on Sunday. Johnson knew exactly where he needed to go on the floor to get his shot off, and he scored at will:

The only thing the Clippers could to do stop Johnson was send double-teams, and the Jazz did a great job of spacing the floor with shooters and creating passing lanes for him to pick apart the help. He found Rodney Hood and Joe Ingles for backbreaking 3s in the final minutes of the game, giving Utah the cushion it needed to win:

Johnson became known as “Iso Joe” in his time in Atlanta for how much he relished holding the ball and scoring one-on-one, but he’s never been a one-trick pony. Johnson scored in a number of ways Sunday: He spotted up and knocked down 3s, cut to the rim off the ball, looked for his own shot as the ball handler in the pick-and-roll, and scored as the roll man when used as the screener. You don’t score over 20,000 points in your NBA career without having every trick in your bag.

What should worry Doc Rivers is that he may not be able to keep Mbah a Moute on Johnson. The Clippers have not faced a healthy version of the Jazz yet: As soon as Gobert came back in Game 4, Hayward went out. If Mbah a Moute is guarding Hayward in the fourth quarter, the Clippers have to leave a defensively challenged player like Jamal Crawford or J.J. Redick on Johnson. Take one of them off the floor for Wesley Johnson or Pierce and the Clippers become much less potent on offense. Joe Johnson, 16 years into his career, is still an incredibly tough matchup for an opposing team.

This is far from the first time that Johnson has swung a playoff series. In the Nets’ first-round upset of the Raptors in 2014, Johnson abused DeMar DeRozan and Terrence Ross in the post, averaging 21.9 points a game on 52.3 percent shooting in the series. He was just as good in the following round against the Heat, when he averaged 20.2 points a game on 54.8 percent shooting. Johnson has been a fixture in the playoffs for well over a decade. He averaged 20 points a game in the Hawks’ seven-game loss to the eventual NBA champion Celtics in 2008, and the course of league history might have swung completely if he hadn’t broken an orbital bone in his face when he was playing for the Suns back in 2005, Steve Nash’s first MVP season. Had things gone just a little differently, he could’ve been part of a Suns dynasty.

Instead, he struck out on his own, forcing a sign-and-trade to Atlanta, where he would eventually sign that infamous max contract in 2010 and become the centerpiece of a perennial 50-win team famous for flaming out in the second round. He was never able to carry a team to the conference finals, but neither has Chris Paul, Vince Carter, or Tracy McGrady. Johnson probably won’t be elected to the Hall of Fame like those three will, but he has accrued more playoff success than any of them and has made more money, too. As long as he stays healthy, he could play at a high level well into his late 30s. After all, he’s not going to get any smaller or become a worse shooter. Slowing down isn’t that big a deal when you already play at a slowed-down pace to begin with.

While Johnson came into the league at the right place and the right time to make a lot of money, he still earned every dollar he made. He was almost never hurt: He has missed a significant chunk of time only once in his 16 seasons in the league. He was a blue-collar star who showed up every night, punched the clock, and knocked down a barrage of midrange jumpers. Not having a plaque in a glorified office park in Massachusetts won’t define his career. It doesn’t really mean anything at all. If the worst thing people can say about you is that you made too much money, you must have done something right.