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Joe Johnson Has A Shot At A Winning Third Act In Miami

Joe Johnson has had a long and successful career, but his kind-of-boring excellence was eclipsed by his huge contract. Now, in Miami, he can write his own ending.
Photo by Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

There is no shortage of superstars in the NBA. There are regal executioners like Steph Curry and Kevin Durant, pirouetting through elite defenses with velvet-gloved wrath. There are those that rob the light from your eyes with their single-minded obstinacy: Kobe, Michael, Cliff Paul's twin brother on a good day. Then you've got your Greek Fire types like LeBron and Russell Westbrook and Anthony Davis, and utilitarian maestros like Kawhi Leonard and Draymond Green. And then, as if from a different planet entirely, there's Joe Johnson.


Johnson is not a superstar anymore, if he ever was, and he is closer to the end of his career than the beginning. But after years sort of fighting the sort of good fight, mostly on purgatorial teams, he is finally crawling back into the light with the Miami Heat, and wheezing into a final act of relevance. It's more fun than it sounds.

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Johnson has been manning his post now for 15 years, long enough for millions of subsequent babies to have been born and grown up into manga fans. As his utilitarian name suggests, you sort of know what you're going to get with Joe Johnson. The prose of his game is curt, always muscular but not always dangerous. As a tentacle of the glorious monster that was the Seven Seconds Or Less Suns, Johnson did enough things well to convince the Hawks to give him all their money. There he…played for some time, alongside personalities more compelling (Josh Smith) and more brilliant (Al Horford) on teams that were generally good and never much more than that.

That's not to say Johnson didn't have his moments, especially his 4th quarter savaging of the Ubuntu Celtics in Game 4 back in 2008. That was vintage Joe Johnson, a sterile evisceration carried out by means of long-bombs, plebian runners, and blue-collar ankle breaking. It just never got much more beautiful than that.

In time, "Joe Johnson" became an asterisk, the person to which a $24 million-a-year contract was attached. It not only haunted his employer's books, but Johnson's own reputation and legacy. All free-market kudos to Joe Johnson for getting more money than the other marquee stars of the legendary 2010 free agent class—a group that includes former, future, and current Heat players LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, and Amare Stoudemire—but it was always going to be this way.


It was almost impossible to justify the contract even at Johnson's peak, and his Yeah, Whatever's Fine disposition and inevitable decline made it impossible. He could clock-in with a vengeance and rain hellfire for a minute, but he could just as easily float on the periphery, dribble like he got paid by the bounce, and throw up shots that could charitably be deemed idiotic. Joe's attitude of perpetual nonplussment achieved supernova when he was dealt to Brooklyn, a franchise that was hilariously going through puberty and euthanasia simultaneously.

In choosing the Heat after negotiating the buyout with Brooklyn, Johnson made a decision that momentarily baffled a few pundits—Johnson eschewed certain title contender status with LeBron in Cleveland, and chose to augment the curio dark horse in South Beach. Pat Riley and the Heat have long shrewdly used their humid but desirable location, state tax perks, and a chill familial vibe, and this already appears to be the rare love-match on the NBA market. No, Johnson hasn't been reborn as the superstar he once collected checks to be, but he has regained his weapon, and, more liberating, he's not his fucking contract anymore. He can just play, and maybe even win a little too.

When you see your main dude and you're both insanely rich. — Photo by Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Perhaps Johnson envisioned a future as the latest Cavalier scapegoat, his mere presence further disrupting the harmony of what should be a dominant team but isn't. But if Miami fails to make noise in the playoffs, Johnson is basically blameless; there was no sacred chemistry to be fouled up in the first place. Sometimes the Heat look like deep-cut Eastern Conference killers and other times they look like broken down hardware. Johnson's taciturn backbencher personality could be a boon, remixed as the quiet confidence of a world-weary glue guy and not as a checked-out vet's resigned aloofness.

Also worth mentioning: the Heat are without a doubt a better with Johnson. At 34 quiet years, Johnson is gamely running again in an offense where pace is key; he's also put in some time at the four, which is a fitting endpoint for someone who came up under Mike D'Antoni. And though few sane humans are predicting another Finals appearance for Miami yet, Johnson's arrival—and Erik Spoelstra flipping his offense on its head—has yielded extremely promising results, including the team's annual Beat the Cavaliers Schadenfreude Extravaganza, which was celebrated on Saturday in a 122-101 Heat win; Johnson put up 18 points as efficiently as possible. Johnson has also already destroyed Toronto's guards in the playoffs once, and if there's one thing Joe enjoys above all others it's doing the same thing over and over again.

There is a photo of Joe Johnson and Jimmy Carter taking in a Braves game that I keep thinking about. It's tempting to imagine the two just bumping into one another in the hot dog line and recognizing a kindred spirit. Each are stubborn dudes that came along at the wrong time to be appreciated, and who were least interesting in their respective primes. The Jimmy Carter that millions of people around the world respect and cherish isn't the President who freestyled about malaise or admitted that he occasionally gets horny. It's the guy who builds houses for Habitat for Humanity and monitors elections in hotspots most members of his cohort would be scared even to Google. It's the dude who will fiercely defend human rights and human dignity until he bounces from this mortal coil. Carter inspires in a different and deeper way than most Presidents ever will.

Joe Johnson's trajectory may very well be similar. No longer is he half forgotten, throwing up bricks until the dying of the light. With the Heat he is running again, and building towards something, perhaps a legacy where that nine-figure asterisk is just an asterisk, and nobody gives a damn about the $120 million dollar contract anymore. Maybe someday the Joe Johnson we remember will be the Joe Johnson from Miami—the missing piece, the man who smiled and sometimes made the best sort of shots, the shots that mattered.