It’s been a strange, rocky start for Joe Johnson in 2015-16.
After a disappointing drop-off in overall production and effectiveness during 2014-15, the Brooklyn Nets star has struggled even more this season, especially as a shooter and scorer.
In his prime, Johnson was a dynamic offensive weapon who could attack off the bounce, create offense at will and fill up the hoop from deep. These days, he’s been a wildly inconsistent scorer who’s more of a liability defensively than ever before.
With Deron Williams gone and a lack of depth in the rotation, Johnson has shouldered more of the creating duties alongside Jarrett Jack. It’s a blessing because he’s been a pleasantly effective facilitator for stretches, but it’s a curse because he’s playing 35-plus minutes per game and looks sluggish in every other area.
Even after respectable outings during Tuesday’s win over the Atlanta Hawks (13 points, nine assists) and Wednesday’s loss to the Charlotte Hornets (16 points, three assists), Iso Joe’s shooting numbers are still jarring. He’s hitting 34 percent from the field and 25 percent from three-land, and Johnson’s shot chart illustrates that he’s cold from the last places you want him to struggle:
Joe Johnson Shot Chart thru Nov. 18 pic.twitter.com/mWwoXwKRxm
— Daniel O'Brien (@DanO_Bball) November 19, 2015
We thought the 34-year-old was starting to cook and find his old form on Wednesday. Johnson opened up with a crisp 5-of-6 shooting line in the first quarter against Charlotte.
Then the wheels fell off in the second half and he disappeared:
Joe Johnson final three quarters — 1-for-7, 3 points. #Nets also outscored 33-15 from 3-point range.
— Mike Mazzeo (@MazzESPN) November 19, 2015
He’s passing well. Yeah. But it’s difficult watching Joe Johnson like this.
— The Brooklyn Game (@TheBKGame) November 19, 2015
Johnson’s inability to consistently score in his role and play sound defense has resulted in some ugly efficiency numbers. The veteran currently has an offensive rating of 95 and a monstrous defensive rating of 111, per Basketball-Reference.com.
When in quarterbacking mode, he’s done a superb job of accessing the middle of the floor, drawing interest from multiple defenders and finding the open man. Johnson is posting 4.8 assists per 36 minutes, his best per-minute dime-dropping rate since 2010-11. On top of that, Johnson has committed just 1.4 turnovers per 36 minutes, his cleanest mark since his rookie campaign.
But when Iso Joe is in scoring mode, he’s been exceptionally spotty this year. He’s yet to shoot better than 40 percent from the field in back-to-back games.
Ben Golliver of Sports Illustrated explained how Brooklyn’s dearth of scoring consistency and depth has put Johnson in a suboptimal role:
The clanks from Johnson’s missed jumpers sound an awful lot like a call for help. While Johnson’s end is fast approaching, Brooklyn represents a worst-case scenario for an aging scorer like him…the roster lacks another dynamic perimeter scorer to balance the attack, and coach Lionel Hollins is still asking Johnson to play full starters minutes when a smaller role makes all the sense in the world.
While Johnson’s uneven play can be attributed partially to his role and environment, it’s also largely due to his sharply declining athleticism and poor shot selection.
Johnson was never a top-shelf athlete in his heyday, and he’s never been shy about hoisting shots, but he’s reached new lows in both areas so far this season. Johnson has lost any semblance of lower-body burst to create separation for drives and jumpers. Consequently, he’s easier to corral after hesitation moves, and his shots are easier to contest.
It’s not just that he’s forcing up ill-advised shots off the dribble (36 percent shooting on pull-ups, including 38 percent effective field goal percentage). Johnson has bricked a boatload of catch-and-shoot attempts as well, posting 26 percent and 36 percent effective field goal shooting in that department.
Meanwhile, he’s more physically inept than ever on defense.
He didn’t earn a reputation as a stopper throughout his career, so it’s not shocking that his defensive rating is so high. Nevertheless, it’s hard for Nets fans to watch his ineptness when guarding wings or protecting the rim.
Johnson has forced opponents into below-average shooting on two-pointers outside of 15 feet, but when it comes to triples or interior buckets, opponents are having a field day at his expense.
He lacks the agility to stay in front of slashers, the foot speed to recover and the bounce to contest shots. Factor in his lapses in awareness, and you have a recipe for calamity. Johnson’s opponents are shooting 38 percent from three-land, 69 percent within 10 feet of the hoop and a ridiculous 75 percent within six feet. He simply can’t explode to challenge attackers anymore.
There may not be much Johnson can do to address his bottom-tier defense, but there’s a huge chunk of season left for him to adjust his offensive approach. It won’t be easy because he’s not surrounded by playoff-caliber talent, and there’s no guaranteeing that his early-season shooting woes won’t continue:
Sometimes 30 something players fade away. Sometimes they just fall off the cliff. Fear that with Joe Johnson
— NetsDaily.com (@NetsDaily) November 18, 2015
In an ideal scenario, Johnson would have a noticeably smaller role on the Nets this season. But Brooklyn’s bench has been mostly unreliable, so Hollins is leaning heavily on his front line.
Johnson will continue to see 30-plus minutes per game, which means we’ll know by December or early January if he’s adapted and out of his November funk or if he’s indeed crashing and burning.