MIAMI — By the late summer of 2006, everyone knew about Dwyane Wade.
The 24-year-old guard had just carried the Miami Heat to a championship, reaching that pinnacle prior to three of his 2003 draft classmates, LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Chris Bosh. Now, all four—along with Chris Paul, Dwight Howard and Shane Battier—were preparing to represent the United States at the World Championships in Japan.
This is where Wade and his teammates got to know a lot more about Joe Johnson, a 25-year-old who was already on his third team and had just averaged 20 points in a season for the first time.
"From afar, I knew he was good," Wade told Bleacher Report after Wednesday's Heat practice. "But we were practicing, and I was like, 'Oh my God, I didn't know he was this good.' And we were all, like, 'Joe, you know how good you are?' He was like, 'Whatever.'"
That team didn't win the gold medal, falling to Greece and settling for bronze. But Johnson won the respect of his peers, tying with Howard for fifth on the team in scoring.
"Very quiet guy, but very cool," James said. "We called him 'Joe Cool' for a reason."
"Cool Joe, that's his personality," Wade said. "His game is like a personality. He'll give you a quiet 30."
In Brooklyn's Game 1 loss, Johnson didn't get quite that many, giving the Nets a team-leading 17 on 7-of-11 shooting. And while there's been more talk about the Heat's rivalries with Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, Johnson will continue to be the central focus of Miami's defensive game plan.
The way the Heat view Johnson is in contrast with the conventional perception. Many outsiders have evaluated him in relation to his earnings: more than $150 million over the course of his career, including $123 million on his current six-year contract.
Is it possible to be overpaid and underrated?
Is it possible to be decorated, with seven All-Star appearances, and yet downplayed?
If so, the understated Johnson qualifies for those characterizations.
After the All-Star break, he averaged 17.0 points on 47.9 percent shooting. And in close contests—even with Pierce, Garnett and Deron Williams on the floor—Johnson was usually Brooklyn's go-to scorer.
As the Nets kept winning, he changed the conversation, from that contract to his contributions.
That's how it works, as current Heat forward Rashard Lewis experienced during his Orlando days. Lewis' six year, $112 million deal wasn't such an issue when the Magic made the NBA Finals.
"The next year, we had a little up and down, and things changed," Lewis said. "If you're winning, they couldn't care less how much you're making, how many points you're scoring, but when you're losing, they got to find someone to point the finger at."
For the time being, it appears that Brooklyn's just pointing to Johnson in a positive way, looking for him to provide timely scoring. It helps that he's part of an assemblage at this stop, while he was expected to do everything for Atlanta, and that he's healthier than he was last season, his first with the Nets. This season, the toughest challenge was understanding where he stood, with new, proven veterans aboard.
"Nobody kind of knew and understood their roles probably the first few months of the season, to be honest with you," Johnson said. "It took a while for all of that. We kind of knew that down the stretch, the ball was either going to be in my hands or Paul's. That's kind of how it was. But other than that, I don't think anybody had a clue, really."
Now they do.
And his teammate, Shaun Livingston, is definitive about where Johnson rates.
"Offensively, he's our best player," Livingston said. "He can do everything offensively. We've ridden him for games. He's gotten us wins almost single-handedly, and then he makes everybody better as well. He lets the game come to him, he makes the right play, he doesn't force it, he can score from anywhere on the court, and he can make plays for others. That's a triple-threat combination."
That's in contrast with the "iso Joe" reputation he earned while playing for Mike Woodson in Atlanta. On Wednesday, before Nets practice, Johnson spoke of the need for the most possible movement against Miami, since "we can't just play one-on-one basketball against this team, they're too good." Williams spoke of the need to play more through Johnson in the post, "and play off him, even though they're making it hard for him to get catches."
Battier was among those doing the denying. But even though he was effective Tuesday (Johnson praised him with the designation of "pest"), he's aware of the ongoing challenges of the assignment. In fact, Battier was effusive in his appreciation of Johnson's skill set, a repertoire that James and Wade and perhaps a couple of other defenders will also attempt to undermine.
"He's got a lot to his game," Battier said. "There's not a lot you can take away, so to speak. I'm not saying you can take away...but Carmelo Anthony, he's so left-hand dominant. So if you make him put it in his right hand, he really struggles. Joe, you can't really do that. You really just have to fight him, play him honest, make him work for catches. Don't let him get any free catches, because once he gets a free catch, he's got multiple options."
If you dare suggest that Johnson is very good at everything, but great at nothing, Battier will battle you on that.
"Over his career, he's the best post-up wing, efficiency-wise, in the last 13 years," Battier said. "Which no one would think, but he's a handful down in the block. Great player. We know about him, and we know the importance of his game to the Nets."
But, then, why is he relatively anonymous outside of basketball circles, compared to others with fewer All-Star appearances?
"Obviously, it's not the talent part of it," Wade said. "But he's never been on a team that's won big. I think he's been in the second round a couple times."
Four times before this year, actually, winning just three of the 16 games he's played in.
"He's talented, man," Wade said. "But his personality, he's so quiet. And no one's ever pushed him."
As in promoted.
"Like a Derrick Rose quiet, but Derrick's game is loud," Wade said. "So people were able to push him. Joe's quiet, his game is quiet."
Even as he's scored 17,172 regular-season points.
|Joe Johnson career stats|
Johnson's answer was quiet Wednesday, when asked if he had a sense of how the public views him.
"I don't know," Johnson said. "Honestly, I don't. I really don't, man. You know what, for me, I like to fly under the radar. I don't care about the accolades or you giving me praise about this and that. I just try to do what I can, man, to help us as a team. You never see me beg or ask for attention, because I don't crave it."
He's getting it from the Heat this week, whether he wants it or not.
Ethan Skolnick covers the Heat for Bleacher Report.