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Joe Johnson, Being A Hero, And Shedding That Villainous Price Tag

You either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain.

— Harvey Dent | The Dark Knight

The NBA is a fickle place. In our world today, where everything — every move, decision or spoken word — is scrutinised across a broad spectrum of media, all it takes is one slip up to flip the script and turn you from a golden child to a villain; something Joe Johnson learnt in one of the most lucrative ways known to man.

Johnson hasn’t necessarily faced the same adversity that, say, LeBron James did after he made his decision to join the Miami Heat a few years back, and he sure hasn’t become a part of the most-hated club like Patrick Beverley did when he brought the Oklahoma City Thunder’s championship aspirations to a screeching halt last season with a swift knee-to-knee collision with Russell Westbrook. But, nonetheless, he has been under the microscope since he received a big payday in 2010, the one that catapulted him into some company that he had no business being in.

Was he wrong to sign the six-year, $123,658,089 offer the Hawks put on the table? Of course not. Anyone who is worth their own salt would never say “no” to a promotion of that magnitude, especially when their peak years were winding down in an industry that is notorious for chewing people up and spitting them back out before they know it. It may have robbed Atlanta of an opportunity to sign a big name free agent and thus build a title-contending team, but, unlike the Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Michael Jordan’s of the world, Johnson hasn’t been fighting for an ever-lasting legacy. He’s known to be a quiet, soft-spoken man — a product of his background, growing up in sleepy Little Rock, Arkansas. Although he’s had the talent to be a franchise player, he’s always been better fit as a team’s second option. It’s the reason the Brooklyn Nets pulled the strings to bring him to their franchise and it’s a reason they were pinned by many to challenge the Miami Heat for a spot in the NBA Finals before the 2013-2014 season kicked off.

Nevertheless, it’s as though Johnson did the NBA and its fans wrong by doing so; as though, deep down, he knew he wasn’t the once-in-a-lifetime player that his bank account said he was, and that he should’ve owned up to it by not scribbling his John Hancock all over the contract.

As a result, Johnson has fallen out of favor among the more prominent NBA crowds, and un-rightly so. Since 2005, he’s been a 20-point per game scorer on a nightly basis. Sure, he has never — and will never — be worth the money he’s been drawing in over the last four years (a shade under $20 million a year), but there aren’t many players in the league today that have a resumé that includes seven All-Star appearances, over 17,000 career points (good for 83rd all-time), 81 playoff games, and many memorable game-winning jumpers. It’s almost as though, because of that hefty price tag, we’ve pushed all his accomplishments aside, which, in turn, has led to him being an under-appreciated talent in a league where elite, efficient scorers are a lost commodity.

Recently, though, that hefty contract has almost become an afterthought.

When Johnson joined the Brooklyn Nets in 2012, he became a part of a team where one’s salary was nothing but a number. Not even a harsh salary cap — one where teams would be heavily penalised for overstepping the boundaries — could prevent Johnson’s contract from bastardizing a front office*. And although he’ll never be the Nets’ version of LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant or Chris Paul, he’s still their leader and lightning rod, which became all the more conclusive in these playoffs.

* The Nets may have fallen at the hands of a gentleman’s sweep in 2014 playoffs, but had Brook Lopez been healthy all season long, it’s hard to imagine them not, at least, putting up a better fight against the Miami Heat. And, hell, they probably wouldn’t have faced them in the second-round had he not been injured. That sure would’ve helped. 

At age 32, Johnson had the best post-season run of his career. In 12 games, he averaged 21.2 points on 53.3 percent shooting from the floor and 41.5 percent from three. He led the Nets in scoring in all but three games, and saved his best for last, scoring 34 points in an elimination game where they fell at the last hurdle — blowing an eight-point lead with 4:49 to go in the fourth. He also put the young, pesky Toronto Raptors to bed, pouring in a 26 points in a Game Seven on the road, including 11 straight points in the fourth quarter to give the Nets a comfortable cushion.

Quite simply, Johnson was the reason the Nets made it to the Eastern Conference Semifinals for the first time in seven years.

Joining a team owned by Mikhail Prokhorov may have been the best thing that could’ve happened to Joe Johnson and his career. He’s always been a special talent and one that any general manager around the league would want on their team. It’s just unfortunate that it has come with a whopping contract. Yet, for the first time in a long while, he isn’t being judged by the nine-figure salary he is taking home, and it can no longer be used as an excuse as to why he’s a cancer for a team. Instead, it has allowed him to play on a national stage where, most importantly, everyone can appreciate his talent at face value without a big cloud looming above his head.

Johnson developed into a small town hero in his first few years in the league, budding into one of the most reliable outside shooters under Steve Nash’s tutelage, but he’s been around long enough to see himself turn into a villain — a highly overpaid linchpin. Luckily for him, though, he’s been given an opportunity to turn that narrative on its head and he may still have time to shake off that villainous price tag.

Scott Rafferty