The Nets have spent the last 48 hours either assembling a superteam that will contend immediately for a championship, or ruining their first half-decade in Brooklyn. Since last night, the team finalized a deal with the Atlanta Hawks to send just under a third of their roster south in order to acquire Joe Johnson, the man with a boring name, a game to match, and $89.3 million headed his way over the next four years.
What does Joe Johnson mean for the Nets? Nothing, yet. It all depends on Dwight Howard and Deron Williams.
Some say Howard probably can't come to Brooklyn because of Johnson's contract. Chris Broussard says "not so!" He proposes a complicated scenario—not imminent, in part because "the Nets are currently looking for a third team to help facilitate the potential trade for Howard"—in which the Nets could still get Dwight and re-sign Williams.
They need them. Their roster at the moment—without the waffling Williams, or Howard, who hasn't yet buffaloed his way out of Orlando—isn't quite there. Johnson's not a bad player, so his albatross of a contract manages to escape the usual criticism bloated deals get. It's evident that the contract is far too generous (he made $2 million more than LeBron last year, and the numbers just get sillier as Johnson gets older), but he's pretty productive, so the deal gets a pass.
The thing is, that's it. He's just pretty productive. Johnson is an aging wing, gradually ceding responsibilities while sinking further into a well-defined niche. He's versatile in theory, but you're fooling yourself if you think he's going to play much point forward for Brooklyn. He used to average nearly six assists per game, but the Hawks brought in a variety of guys—Jeff Teague and Kirk Hinrich, most recently—to distribute and handle the ball, probably because they sensed Johnson wasn't up to it anymore. His assist totals have dropped accordingly, and he's become a prototypical scoring small forward.
So a team needs a strong supporting cast to win with Joe Johnson. And giving Gerald Wallace $40 million (and Johnson $89.3 million) over the next four years doesn't bode well for nabbing the two stars. Zach Lowe notes that Johnson is due $24.9 million in 2015-2016, and Howard Beck called the trade "little more than a salary dump" for the Hawks. That makes the Nets the landfill. Not so long ago, the Nets organized their entire team and sacrificed their final seasons in New Jersey to reach the day when they could throw a lot of money and a lot of trade pieces at Dwight Howard and the Magic. And then they threw a lot of that money, and those pieces, at the Hawks for Joe Johnson.
By committing to Wallace and Johnson—two eh wings that will just get eh-er with time—they've ditched some of the cap flexibility they worked so hard for. But they still have some left. If Brooklyn ends up with Deron Williams and Dwight Howard, all that tanking and shedding of assets worked out. If not? Well, Joe Johnson has plenty of experience losing in the first round as a middling seed in the East.