Joe Johnson: Will Joe Jesus Be There Next Year When You Need Him?

“He’s not always there when you call him, but he’s there when you need him.”

Kevin Garnett’s line, giving birth to “Joe Jesus” resonated with the Brooklyn Nets’ fanbase.  And with good reason.  The buzzer beaters against the Bucks in his first season in Brooklyn. The fadeaway jumper over Tayshaun Prince to beat the Pistons in his inaugural season.  The game winner in Phoenix. The buzzer beater over Serge Ibaka that turned the season.  The shotmaking throughout the playoffs.

The 2014 Nets delivered the first playoff series win in Brooklyn history.  Joe Jesus (yea, I’m going with it) was the reason that happened.  He assaulted DeRozan, Ross, and the Raptors wings all series, and memorably served as the Nets well in game 7, hitting bucket after bucket. The Nets needed them all to advance.

Joe has arguably been a disappointment in Brooklyn, to an extent.  If you consider who he was in Atlanta (a clear all star, a 20 point per game scorer who also made plays for others), he has not met expectations.  His scoring numbers are down, his free throw attempts down as well.  He is extremely slow for a wing, and struggles defensively with smaller players, all the while not defending bigs in smallball lineups as well as Paul Pierce did a year ago.

But if we’re judging the Nets marquee acquisitions relative to expectation, Joe Jesus has surely done a lot more for the Nets than Deron Williams.  Some slippage had to be expected when the Nets paid for his age 31-34 seasons.  Joe has been a rock in Brooklyn, and has hit big shot after big shot … after big shot.

Should the Nets trade Joe?  The answer is not clear.  On one hand, Joe’s contract expires next summer.  Trading him will not open a dime of future cap space.  Joe also makes $24,894,863 next season.  In dealing Joe, the Nets would have to take back a roughly comparable amount of salary, so it’s not as though the Nets can use a Joe deal as a means of opening up flexibility to add to the roster in free agency.

Could the Nets deal Joe to a team with cap space, which enables the acquiring team to eat a chunk of Joe’s deal without sending as much money back Brooklyn’s way? Perhaps.  But typically, when teams rent cap space in deals of that sort, they don’t rent it for free, and charge you draft pick compensation (and usually a first rounder). Is it really worth forking over picks to shed Joe’s salary?  And what would the Nets even do with the menial cap space they may be able to create? (the Nets are currently about $8 million under the cap, without retaining any of their free agents.  Retain Lopez and Young, and the Nets will shoot approximately $17-20 million over the cap. No Joe deal in that scenario would open cap space).  Would the Nets even want to use their cap space on any player of value wanting a 2-4 year deal, thereby cutting into the Nets 2016 trove of space?

Essentially, the Nets seem unlikely to benefit from any Joe deal.  A deal assuming future salary hurts.  A deal relinquishing picks hurts.  In all likelihood, no deal opens cap space in 2015, and it is assured that no deal opens space in 2016 given Joe expires that summer. The Nets do not benefit unless the player acquired is better than Joe, or fits the roster better, AND doesn’t further cloud the draft pick or future salary picture.

Which makes me wonder: are the Nets merely exploring a Joe deal in an effort to save money?  If so, I do not endorse that.

I know what the 2011 CBA says.  I understand the luxury tax is wicked, punitive really.  Without delving into detail, the amount of money the Nets could save if a Joe trade brought back a lower salary (be it due to a cap space rental or otherwise) could be substantial.

However, what I also know is that the NBA is in extremely excellent financial health. Franchise values are through the roof.  Teams may lose money in basketball operations, but between ticket, merchandise, advertising, and other revneue, there is plenty of money coming in the door. The Nets, like every other team, benefit tremendously from the new television deal.  And much of the money teams make comes from the fans.  Most fans are not millionaires, sitting at home with money to blow.  Fans work hard, for the most part, to earn their money, and they choose to invest that money in teams like the Nets.  They buy season or game tickets.  Food at games.  Merchandise.

When the Nets (or any team) make a deal that hurts the roster and has no benefit to building a future champion (today or tomorrow), but saves money, the only person benefitting is the team owner.  The trade hurts every fan who invests in the team, and no fan gets a cut of that money.  If a cost cutting deal is made after season ticket renewals, your package isn’t discounted.  The shirt you bought your son, the toy ball you bought your nephew: you’re not getting a percentage back.

Obviously, there are cost cutting deals that help teams, because they open up flexibility for the present or future.  I, of course, love such moves.  But if a move hurts the present, has no impact on the future (or hurts it), and does nothing except save Mikhail Prokhorov’s money? I simply cannot endorse the move.

It may be time for Joe Jesus to go, whether it is this summer or next.  And if it happens, it happens.  But I know I’ll miss screaming “Joeeeeeeeee” at the top of my lungs after a big shot.  I’ll miss Joe Jesus jokes.  And I’ll miss a player who got the Nets further than anyone since Jason Kidd.

So, is there a sensible Joe trade out there?  Let’s take a look at some options.

Proposal One: 

Joe and Mason Plumlee to Charlotte for Lance Stephenson, Marvin Williams, and Gerald Henderson

Exploring deals with Charlotte highlights the problem with trading Joe.  He makes a ton of money, which requires the dealing team to trade a ton of money.  And is any team willing to exchange $24 million in talent for Joe? Something with Charlotte could work if the organization sees Stephenson as a sunk cost, but this is a lot of talent for Charlotte to deal just for Joe and Plumlee.

Proposal Two: 

Joe for Brandon Jennings, Jodie Meeks, and Caron Butler (h/t @shook_jones)

Detroit is one of the more sensible destinations for Joe.  Stan Van Gundy loves Joe Johnson. He did not take the job to oversee a long rebuild, and the Pistons were relatively close to playoff caliber last season. The Pistons are set up front, and found their point guard of the future.  What they lack is a wing, as well as playoff experience among their core (Jackson played in the playoffs as a reserve, but to me, playoff experience connotates playing big minutes, and being responsible for the outcome as a lead player).  Joe would bring much of that to Detroit.  He could help lead their core to the playoffs in 2016, and because his deal expires, he would not affect any of their future plans in building around their core.  Detroit has several mid level salaries among its non core pieces, and could target Joe.

Proposal Three:

Joe to Milwaukee, Mayo and Pachulia to Brooklyn, Ilyasova and two Nets second rounders to Philadelphia, and a heavily protected Sixers second to Milwaukee.

Jason Kidd did like Joe Johnson when he coached in Brooklyn.  This feels unlikely, but is the only way a Joe to Milwaukee deal could work.  Philadelphia would be renting space for picks, which the Nets would be sending them because this deal would present significant savings.

Proposal Four:

Joe and Bojan to Denver for Lawson, Hickson, Arthur, and a trade exception (h/t @adamorrechio)

This is not exactly what Denver would be looking for in a Lawson deal.  However, after all the point guard trades at the deadline, the Nuggets face a similar issue that the Nets face with Deron: the market for point guard’s is thin.  The Nets would be surrendering two starters for Lawson and floatsam, and the deal would not harm Denver’s salary picture while providing a potential nucleus piece.  Denver likely hopes to do better, but can do worse.

Other Notes

Bobby Marks and the Nets parted ways today.  Marks was a strong Assistant GM in Brooklyn, his role in figuring out the complicated CBA machinations of several deals in recent years duly noted.  His departure in the wake of the Joe and Jarrett Jack trade rumors concern me.  The nets need to be spend money if they want to be a successful organization, and not just in the obvious areas.  You need to invest in a diverse front office group so that the GM has a sounding board of smart people.  In analytics.  Sports medicine and science.  Nutrition.  It is hard to build a contender, especially in a conference where LeBron’s free agency decision won the last five titles.  It requires a perfect storm of luck and smarts, and the more you invest, the more likely you are to hit the lottery.

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