What Joe Johnson trades means for Nets, Hawks — and Dwight Howard

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Guard Joe Johnson averaged at least 18.2 points in each of his seven seasons in Atlanta. (Scott Cunningham/NBAE via Getty Images)

The Nets have agreed to acquire Joe Johnson from Atlanta, according to numerous reports. Johnson, 31, is a very fine shooting guard who also happens to work under a contract that will pay him $24.9 million — in the 2015-16 season. The Nets will be much, much better next season when they move to Brooklyn, assuming this trade happens and they follow it up by re-signing point guard Deron Williams, formalizing a four-year, $40 million agreement with small forward Gerald Wallace, re-signing center Brook Lopez, adding another piece with the mid-level exception and perhaps even asking power forward Kris Humphries to stick around.

That’s a playoff team, perhaps even a top-four seed in the Eastern Conference, and when you consider that Brooklyn has won 58 games combined over the last three seasons, finishing, say, 48-34 would be a considerable step up. Under the terms of the trade, the Nets have managed to keep shooting guard MarShon Brooks, who averaged 12.6 points as a rookie last season, and their own 2013 first-round pick. Atlanta would receive Jordan Farmar, Johan Petro, Anthony Morrow, DeShawn Stevenson (via sign-and-trade), Houston’s 2013 lottery-protected first-round pick (acquired in the Terrence Williams deal) and possibly one of Chris Morris’ old sneakers.

In a talent in/talent out equation, there is no argument: The Nets win in a landslide. And yet, it is hard to find any big-picture way that the Hawks lose a trade in which they manage to unload a 31-year-old shooting guard who will be paid $25 million when he is 35 34. And if Williams bolts, it could be a disaster zone in Brooklyn.

This Atlanta core has never advanced past the conference semifinals, and general manager Danny Ferry — who is less than two weeks into a six-year contract — has hit the reset button in a way that will eventually give the Hawks a realistic hope of constructing a good, new team in short order. By wiping away the last four years of Johnson’s deal, and reportedly agreeing to trade Marvin Williams to Utah for point guard Devin Harris in another money-saving deal, the Hawks have positioned themselves for max-level cap room next summer even while keeping 2013 free agent Josh Smith’s cap hold on the books if they choose.

The Hawks now get to contemplate rebuilding around their two best players, Smith and center Al Horford, rather than keeping their third-best player, Johnson, simply because Johnson’s salary forced them to do so.

And I think you know which Atlanta-bred center is going to headline (along with Clippers point guard Chris Paul) next summer’s free-agent class. He’s the same guy who wants to go Brooklyn. And today, with news of this deal, Dwight Howard is beginning to understand that Brooklyn has taken itself out of the running to sign him in free agency next summer. If the Hawks want to chase both Howard and Paul in free agency, they should be able to squeeze out enough cap space by either dealing Horford or renouncing their rights to Smith — with the former being more likely, given Smith’s longtime friendship with Howard.

Back to the Nets and why they are out for Howard in straight-up free agency next summer: If Williams signs a max contract, they will have $50 million on the books for 2013-14 to just three players, Williams, Wallace and Johnson. Once they fill the roster, they will be over the cap, which is expected to land around $60 million or $61 million for 2013-14. That means Brooklyn will have no space to sign Howard (or Andrew Bynum, or any star player) in free agency.

The Nets can hold out hope of Orlando’s accepting some package of Lopez, Brooks and whatever the Nets might cobble together from a third team, but that is a long shot. Houston, the Lakers and others loom as more realistic trade partners for the Magic, provided Howard sees how the landscape has changed today and softens his “no extension outside of Brooklyn” stance. (Atlanta could also work a decent trade package for Howard of Horford, point guard Jeff Teague and an expiring contract for cap relief, or wait until the offseason for a sign-and-trade that would allow Orlando to deal its bad contracts into Atlanta’s cap space.)

Brooklyn’s trade package could take on greater appeal to Orlando should Lopez show massive improvement as a defender and rebounder, but even so, the Nets (assuming Williams re-signs) no longer have the ability to easily absorb all of the unfavorable contracts the Magic would like to shed in a Howard trade — deals linked to Glen Davis, Jason Richardson, Hedo Turkoglu and Chris Duhon. Houston, among others, can offer that sort of relief, and the Lakers can offer a franchise-level center in Bynum. Other suitors will emerge, including the Mavericks, who can offer some cap relief but not as much talent.

With Williams, Johnson and Lopez, the Nets would be a solid offensive team. Lopez is an efficient offensive player when he’s healthy, Williams is obviously one of the league’s premier point guards, and Johnson is still a very good player who should thrive on a team where he doesn’t have to be the primary ball-handler. He can post up smaller guards, run off screens for catch-and-shoot plays, cut backdoor (something he was good at when Atlanta’s sets called for it) and chip in the occasional pick-and-roll and “Iso-Joe.” For all the howling about his contract, Johnson can be a dynamic shot-maker who shouldn’t have to push the degree-of-difficulty meter as high in Brooklyn, with Williams around, as he did in Atlanta. This team should also be flexible, able to play both big (with Johnson at shooting guard) and smaller (with Johnson shifting to small forward, and Wallace to power forward). Williams has lots of experience playing off the ball in both Utah and New Jersey, and he could work some of those skills on possessions when Johnson handles.

The questions will come on defense, where Lopez has historically been weak, and the Nets in general were miserable last season. Johnson and Wallace are aging. Williams is an average defender (perhaps slightly above-average) for his position. Humphries, should he return, isn’t exactly Kevin Garnett defending in space.

It’s a good team. And it will play in a conference with some contenders hashing out their own issues. The Celtics are aging. The Bulls will be without Derrick Rose and possibly Luol Deng for part of next season; they also could lose a top defensive big man, Omer Asik, unless they match Houston’s offer sheet and march into the luxury tax before even dealing with the shooting guard position beyond Richard Hamilton. The Pacers have struck a deal to re-sign point guard George Hill, but center Roy Hibbert’s status is up in the air. Orlando is Orlando, messy and bloated. But the luck of injuries, health and trades will flip the right way for some of those teams, and the Heat are still here, playing at a level on both sides of the floor that this Nets core just doesn’t seem equipped to reach.

As for Atlanta, another playoff team in the East: The Hawks just lost their go-to scorer for little in return — especially if they buy out Farmar. Morrow is a dynamite spot-up shooter and Teague is emerging, but it will be tough doling out the burden of creating outside-in offense when the team’s two best creators are interior players, Smith and Horford. (That fact also makes pursuing a center in free agency next summer a bit tricky, though sign-and-trade deals involving Smith could be an option.) The Hawks will need much more from Teague –¬†they might be more watchable playing at his pace rather than Johnson’s, though obviously coach Larry Drew will have a lot to say about that — and they’ll have only the mid-level exception with which to bolster the surrounding talent. Atlanta saved an estimated $5 million in this deal, but it’s still over the cap.

The bottom line, however, is that Atlanta gets to reboot in earnest with plenty of future flexibility.

  • Published On 7:35pm, Jul 02, 2012
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