The Thunder’s scintillating victory over the Brooklyn Netropolitans on Tuesday night reminded me of the Joe Johnson/James Harden comparison. Johnson scored 17 points on 8-of-21 shooting in the Thunder’s 117-111 victory in Brooklyn. When the Thunder made the Harden trade in October, some analogies were made to Johnson’s situation from seven years ago.
Johnson grew up in Little Rock, Ark., played at Arkansas and entered the 2001 NBA Draft. He was taken by Boston 10th overall, and was a 20-year-old rookie. In February 2001, Johnson was traded to Phoenix — along with Randy Brown, Milt Palacio and a first-round draft pick that became Casey Jacobsen, for Tony Delk and Rodney Rogers. Bad trade for Boston. But I digress.
James Harden grew up in Los Angeles, played at Arizona State and entered the 2009 NBA Draft. He was taken by the Thunder third overall and was a 20-year-old rookie in 2009-10.
So here are the comparisons:
Rookie Year: Johnson averaged 7.5 points, shot 43 percent from the field and played 24.9 minutes per game. The Suns went 36-46 in 2001-02. Harden averaged 9.9 points, shot 40.3 percent and played 22.9 minutes per game. The Thunder went 50-32 and lost in six games of the first round of the playoffs to the eventual NBA champion Lakers.
Year 2: Johnson averaged 9.8 points, shot 39.7 percent and played 27.5 minutes per game. The Suns went 44-38 and reached the playoffs, where they lost in six first-round games to the Spurs, who went on to the NBA title. Harden averaged 12.2 points per game, shot 43.6 percent and played 26.7 minutes per game. The Thunder went 55-27 and reached the West finals, where they lost in five games to the eventual NBA champ Mavericks.
Year 3: Johnson averaged 16.7 points a game, shot 43 percent and played 40.6 minutes per game. The Suns dipped to 29-53. Harden averaged 16.8 points a game, shot 49.1 percent and played 31.4 minutes per game. The Thunder went 47-19 and reached the NBA Finals, where they lost to the Heat in five games.
Year 4: Johnson averaged 17.1 points, shot 46.1 percent and played 39.5 minutes per game. The Suns made the Western Conference Finals and lost in five games to the Spurs, who went on to win the NBA title. Harden is now 17 games into his Houston Rocket career.
So, the first four Johnson seasons and the first three Harden seasons were similar. Eerily similar, some would say. They are similar players, though Harden is better.
The 2012 Thunder playoff team boasted of wondrous young talent — Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka and Harden, all 23 or 22 years old. The 2005 Suns playoff team boasted of wondrous young talent — 22-year-old Amare Stoudemire (26.0 points a game), 26-year-old Shawn Marion (19.4 points a game), Johnson, 24-year-old Quentin Richardson (14.9 points a game), all quarterbacked by an in-his-prime-and-glory Steve Nash.
Johnson became a free agent in 2005 and decided to play the market. He wanted a bigger role. Johnson ended up getting a five-year, $70-million contract from the Atlanta Hawks, and in 2010 Johnson signed a six-year, $119-million contract with Atlanta, which last summer traded him to the Nets.
Harden, you know all about.
So Johnson in 2005 was in very much the same situation Harden was in this past off-season. How has it worked for Johnson?
Well, he’s had a great career. The big contract in 2010. Six straight all-star appearances. He was the main man on some good Atlanta teams. But not great teams.
The Hawks went 26-56 and 30-52 in Johnson’s first two seasons, then became a perennial playoff team. Lost in the first round in 2008 and 2012; lost in the East semifinals in 2009, 2010 and 2011.
Meanwhile, the team he left behind wilted. The Suns didn’t retain the momentum from the 2005 season, when Phoenix was as good a pick as any to win the NBA title. The Suns returned to the West finals in 2006, slipped to the West semifinals in 2007, were knocked out of the West first round in 2008 and missed the playoffs entirely in 2009. Phoenix staged a revival with a spirited run to the West finals in 2010, losing to the Lakers, but fell back to mediocre records in 2010-11 (40-42) and 2011-12 (33-33). Stoudemire was traded along the way, and now Nash is gone, too.
Phoenix’s window closed. Johnson’s window in Atlanta never opened.
Is Johnson happy with his decisi0n to leave Phoenix? To leave what could have been an iconic NBA team? Only he knows for sure.
The same with James Harden, who is headed for perennial all-star status in Houston, but odds are long that he’ll ever be on a team as great as the 2011-12 Thunder. And who knows if the Thunder will go the way of the Johnson-less Suns.