When you’ve been at something for almost two decades like Joe Johnson has at the NBA, you start to get nostalgic and reflective.
Johnson’s not ready to retire — far from it, actually. He figures to play an important role off the bench this season for the Utah Jazz and as was proven last spring in the Western Conference playoffs, he can still play.
But when a guy makes seven All-Star teams like Johnson, and is one of the better scorers of his generation, it’s natural to think about your overall place in the game.
About Joe Johnson
• In his first year as a non-starter in over a decade, he averaged 9.2 points per game. It was the first time since the 2003-2004 season he did not averaged at least 10 points per game.
• Played the majority of his games as a power forward for the first time in his career.
• The Jazz installed a Yoga studio in their renovated practice facility in part to accommodate Johnson.
“It’s been a great experience,” Johnson told The Tribune. “Guys I came in with, we always have debates on who was better, who did more. But I’ve been in the game 17 years, and it’s been a pretty special journey, if you ask me.”
From Boston to Phoenix to Atlanta and Brooklyn, to Miami and now the Jazz, Johnson’s constant has been his offensive ability. His 2001 draft class has five other active players remaining — Pau Gasol, Tyson Chandler, Tony Parker, Richard Jefferson and Zach Randolph. If you are looking for context, Phoenix Suns head coach Earl Watson was in that class, as was former Jazz forward Mehmet Okur and current Jazz assistant DeSagana Diop.
And yet, Johnson is going strong. The Jazz are hoping Rodney Hood evolves into a primary fourth-quarter scorer; but until he does that, Johnson is the one guy on the roster who is proven repeatedly in the clutch.
This means, at least early in the regular season, Jazz fans can expect plenty of Johnson when games are on the line. The Jazz reduced his minutes last season with a nod to his age — he’s now 36 — and he’s no longer carrying the burden he would as a starter, which in theory will help his longevity and effectiveness.
“To me, the kind of season he can have, he can be sixth man of the year,” Jazz coach Quin Snyder said. “That’s the role we kind of see for him. Now that’s a high bar, obviously, and we do want to be conscious of his minutes to a degree. But he’s taken good care of himself. He’s a pro, and he knows what to do to keep his body in shape.”
Historically, the Jazz have not been a free agent destination, something General Manager Dennis Lindsey has sought to change. Johnson last year represented one of Utah’s first major free agent pickups since Carlos Boozer over a decade ago.
For Johnson, the organization is what drew him. There was mutual interest at the trade deadline of 2016, but Johnson decided to go to the Miami Heat for a potential playoff run. Once he hit the unrestricted market that summer, he chose the Jazz.
Johnson says he’s loved the move. He lives in Park City with his family, and hangs out all over the Salt Lake Valley. Originally from Arkansas, Johnson has likened Utah to his home state.
“It definitely reminds me of home,” Johnson said. “I like the easy pace and it’s beautiful out here. Utah’s a great state. I definitely enjoy it, and I look forward to getting my second year started.”
His first season with the Jazz began at small forward, his natural position. But Snyder was looking for a consistent playmaking option at power forward and cast Johnson in that role around midseason for when the Jazz went small.
The move was made for multiple reasons. Johnson’s size at 6-foot-8 and 240 pounds works well in today’s NBA; he’s big enough that power forwards aren’t going to bully him in the paint, while his shooting range causes mismatches.
“The advantage is we know how we want to play him,” Snyder said.
It’s obvious Johnson can still play. The Jazz don’t beat the Los Angeles Clippers in the Western Conference first round without Johnson, who hit the winning shot in Game 1 and gave the Clippers fits all series.
Johnson became famous for his Yoga regimen, the way he’s taken care of himself and his ability to make difficult shots seem easy. It was about a decade ago when Johnson realized the key to longevity, stopped the late night runs to McDonald’s and became a workout warrior.
That, and a playing style not predicated on athleticism, became the lynchpin to Johnson’s success. The game never moves too fast for him. And an improved knowledge of Utah’s offense, he figures to play a key role for a team looking to make their second consecutive postseason.
“He’s someone who’s been great in the league for a long time,” Jazz forward Thabo Sefolosha said. “He’s very crafty, he can shoot the ball from anywhere and score from anywhere. I’m happy he’s on my team.”