NEW YORK -- For the two-year history of the Brooklyn Nets, any of a number of people has been billed as the centerpiece of the team.
If you go by the actions of the organization itself, that has been Deron Williams. But the Nets acquired Joe Johnson, then Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, hired three and fired two coaches, all based on the idea that making Williams happy would allow him to thrive in Brooklyn, just like the star he was for the Utah Jazz.
It may be time to put that idea away. Whether it has been the frequent ankle injuries limiting Williams, his odd decision to abdicate responsibility for the offense during the Nets first-round loss to the Bulls last season, or some combination of the two, Williams has only briefly looked like the player the Nets thought they were building around in these playoffs.
And while Pierce and Garnett, acquired this past summer, have the pedigree the rest of the team lacks, they were supplementary pieces this season, and by design. Even if both of them return next year, that's unlikely to change, given their proximity to age 40.
And there's Brook Lopez, of course. But Lopez, who is an elite offensive player when he's on the court, played just 17 games this year, after logging five games in 2011-12. The pair of foot surgeries that led to the extended absences by Lopez's age-25 season makes building around him a difficult proposition. And observers have noted how hard Brooklyn GM Billy King seems to be working to pump up Lopez, the kind of thing you'd do ahead of trying to deal him. My favorite King assertion of Lopez's future health came in this excellent Harvey Araton piece on Lopez: "I'm confident that this won't happen again," King said of Lopez's future. "I know I've said that before, but talking to the doctors, I think they got it right this time." Just the kind of thing a franchise wants to bank on, right?
So that leaves the Nets extremely cap-handicapped over the next two seasons, and relying on Joe Johnson. Despite all the buzz for the players around him, it's increasingly looked like these may be Joe Johnson's Brooklyn Nets. And during these playoffs, we've begun to see what that Nets team might look like.
The regular-season Nets, the guys who won all those games from January through March, ran through Williams, not Johnson. The two guards had about the same number of shot attempts per game, while Pierce, Andray Blatche and even Marcus Thornton checked in around ten shots per game. The offense was spread out.
In the playoffs, though, entering Saturday night's Game 3, Johnson is averaging 15.1 attempts per game. Williams is at 12.3. Pierce is at 10. And even that doesn't tell the whole story.
Johnson has been, in the gaping hole created by Williams' coming and going, the constant on the offensive end. Toronto game-planned for Johnson, not Williams. The same has largely been true for Miami. And even so, Johnson, despite greater volume and most of the attention, has been far more efficient. He's shooting 52.2 percent from the field, 36.4 percent from three. Williams is at 40.5 percent overall, and 31.7 percent from three. Johnson's Player Efficiency Rating jumped from pedestrian 15.5, just above average, in the regular season to 18.8 in the playoffs.
That mark, incidentally, represents the best postseason PER of Johnson's career. And it's right around the 18.4 he posted in 2011-12, his final season in Atlanta, when he last played in an offense built around him.
The results have been clear to see. Johnson almost single-handedly led the Nets back from a 26-point deficit in Game 5 against Toronto. He took 24 shots that day. His attacking in Game 6 got him to the free throw line nine times in a Nets win. And he scored 26 in a Game 7 where the Nets needed every point.
Sometimes it's hard to imagine Joe Johnson as a New York kind of star. At his locker answering questions after games, he's sometimes quiet to the point of inaudible. He lacks the bravado of a Pierce, a Garnett.
"You know, Joe's been great for us all year," Nets coach Jason Kidd said Saturday night following the Nets 104-90 Game 3 win. "He's one of the leaders on this team. You know, he probably doesn't say a lot, on the court or to you guys, but in that locker room, those guys look to Joe as a leader, and he's playing extremely well for us."
He's been effective against the Heat. Is he the star the Nets need him to be, now and -- more significantly -- in the next two years? That's open for debate.
Before Game 3, the Nets' whiteboard had the five most important plays to guard against: "LeBron handing Ray sets P/R, LeBron Wing Iso, LeBron backs down to post up".
Point was clear: the Nets had to contend with LeBron James.
No one is suggesting that Johnson can be for the Nets what LeBron is for the Heat. But it is easy to imagine how the Nets would build around him, even for LeBron.
"Joe's a good player," James said after the game Saturday night. "A great player, actually. He's a big load, a matchup problem for a lot of defenses. He makes tough shots. He makes tough, contested shots. On his first four threes that he made, I think two were in transition, but two of them [were] us playing our defense, and him knocking down shots."
Whether it means redefining Williams' role to the way he functioned Saturday night, eschewing scoring to find Johnson and others, for shots in transition, or dealing Williams and adding a pass-first point guard, the Nets could build a Joe Johnson-friendly team as soon as next season.
Asking Johnson, who will be 33 in June, to constantly create and post up the way he did in the Toronto series for 82 games doesn't seem wise. But find some shooters to surround him, either by dealing Williams or Lopez, maybe making some mischief with Kevin Garnett's expiring deal, might be the best course of action the Nets have between now and the moment they start making their pitch in 2015-16 for Kevin Durant. They already have one shooter under contract next year in Mirza Teletovic, who'd have an expanded role in this scenario.
It played out this way on Saturday night, with Johnson the epicenter of the Brooklyn attack, Teletovic hitting threes over LeBron, and the Nets racing out to a big lead by the end of the third quarter. Johnson had 16 through three, on just eight shots. A deep Nets team finally manifested the bench advantage over the Heat they expected to have all series long. Johnson helped find them, dishing out six assists. And with the Heat hanging around late, down 100-87, Johnson hit a contested three from the corner that sent both teams' starters to the bench, ending the festivities.
As for his voice: the man who boldly declared they'd have the depth advantage in Game 3? Joe Johnson. He stepped forward verbally, just as he has been the man to take the final shot for the Nets, again and again.
I asked him Saturday night if he was taking more of a leadership role on this Nets team that may soon be his. Not surprisingly, he demurred. He's not Pierce off the court, not yet, maybe not ever. His postgame presser, at the podium next to Pierce, consisted of a significant amount of Pierce statements and Johnson nods.
"Ah, my job is easy," Johnson said. "We've got so many guys who are very skilled, with high IQs, playing the game of basketball. So I don't have to some out and force anything. I just let the game come to me, play within our system, and good things happen."
That might be the best recommendation for Joe Johnson, Nets franchise player, though. The tough shots, the transition looks, the post-ups, it's all part of what he does and can do. What he considers part of the game often means doing things other offensive players can't do.
Nets fans ought to get used to it.
"He's an unbelievable player," James said of Johnson. "He plays at his own tempo. You can't speed him up. And he's a big body, too, so he can get physical with us as well," and with this, James gave a small, rueful laugh. "He's a really solid, great player that we have in our league."