Charlotte, N.C. • Following Joe Johnson through any NBA arena feels like watching a reunion.
In Miami, the 36-year-old spent a few minutes speaking with Heat assistant Juwan Howard. In Charlotte, he was the only Jazz player who played against Michael Jordan, who was watching the game courtside now in an ownership role. There’s always a coach, or a staffer, or an opponent who wants to say hi.
It’s not hard to imagine that for a man playing his 17th season in the NBA, you make a few friends. The reason, Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said, is because of how Johnson conducts himself.
“It’s sounds simple, but if you’re just a pro and you approach your job with professionalism, consistency, great character every single day, you’ll get the results you desire on the court in production, but you’ll also leave an impression,” he said. “And he’s done that everywhere he’s been. We loved him while he was here. We would’ve loved to have kept him for longer, but he got a great deal there.”
The seven-time All Star is arguably the most decorated player to ever sign in Utah as a free agent. The decision to sign him for a two-year, $22 million deal was validated last spring when he shouldered a huge load to help beat the Los Angeles Clippers in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs.
But even old pros have their limit. Johnson is playing through one of his roughest seasons in the league (7.3 ppg, 3.4 rpg, 40.8 field goal percentage shooting), which can be either chalked up to a wrist injury he suffered seven games into the season, the erosion of time, or both. It’s a far cry from the vital offensive cog that he was last season.
It puts the Jazz in a bind: How do you help a player who has played so well for so long have a graceful ending chapter to his career?
It’s one of the subplots of a juggling act the Jazz have attempted at power forward with Johnson, Thabo Sefolosha and Jonas Jerebko. All three are veterans, and all three theoretically help space the floor with their shooting. Of those three, Johnson is the least efficient this season. But he was the only one who hasn’t missed any of the past 14 games.
The breaking news on Saturday that Sefolosha may be facing a season-ending MCL injury now casts a fresh spotlight on Johnson. Is the statistical output so far an slump he can pull through, or has he passed the point where he can be productive and efficient?
Johnson made the adjustment to coming off the bench last season, and said he’s “super comfortable” with it now. But it’s not that he’s not playing well off the bench — he hasn’t played well compared to the others who could siphon off his minutes.
Going purely on statistics, Sefolosha and Jerebko have outperformed Johnson to this point. Both Jerebko (.573 eFG percentage) and Sefolosha (.558 eFG) are shooting at higher clips than Johnson, whose .457 eFG is way down from last season (.521) and the lowest it has been since he was 21. Sefolosha and Jerebko also have higher scoring and rebounding numbers per possession, and their offensive and defensive ratings are higher. Johnson has the lowest net rating of any player on the Jazz (minus-11.7).
There’s an argument to be made that Johnson’s skillset is unique: As an isolation scorer, there are moments when he can get baskets no other Jazzman can get. He showed some of that in a Jan. 3 game against the Pelicans, when he was 9-for-12 shooting with a season-high 20 points.
But that may be more hopeful than practical at this point: Only five of his past 14 games have seen Johnson shoot 50 percent or above from the field, and he’s finished with double-digit points in only four of those contests. He hasn’t started since Dec. 20, but he still averaged more minutes (22.8) than Sefolosha (22.2) or Jerebko (17.8) since his return.
It’s called some fans to question the reason Johnson played while Sefolosha and Jerebko sat three games each. There could be some hidden factors, such as Johnson’s reputation within the league. How the Jazz treat him could send a message to future free agents.
The wrist injury — which Johnson was still taping up after the game on Friday — also makes it murky as to what exactly ails him in the scoring department. It was only nine months ago when he dazzled in the playoffs. Would it be wise to give up on him now?
Snyder’s response to how he was handling the rotation was he was looking for certain matchups, and Johnson still has a role to play. Snyder said Wednesday prior to the Washington game — when Johnson had 16 points and four assists — that he was starting to find “a little bit of a groove.”
“I don’t want to pit any of those guys [against one another], it’s not who is playing well on a given night,” Snyder said. “Sometimes when someone’s playing well in a certain role, you recognize that has something to do with it.”
With Sefolosha’s injury, the logjam may be resolved, but it’s unclear whether Jerebko or Johnson will start going forward. And it’s also unclear whether Johnson will end his season with the Jazz. As a veteran scorer with an expiring contract, Johnson could draw interest from other teams looking for a final piece for their playoff runs and may have trade value.
The rotation will also adjust when Rudy Gobert returns, or if Derrick Favors — who The Tribune has reported is the subject of trade discussions — is moved. It’s hard to say with certainty how the Jazz will play Johnson a month or two from now. But they’re counting on him to maintain the professionalism that he has become so well known for.
Against the Wizards, Johnson didn’t hesitate to throw an inside pass to a streaking Jerebko, who finished for a layup. Johnson, Sefolosha and Jerebko each said the competition for minutes hadn’t kept them from having relationships and being able to play together. That’s not how this works.
“We’re veteran guys that have been around the block,” Johnson said. “We know what to expect out of each other.”