Now, with Jarrett Jack lost for the rest of the season due to a torn ACL and meniscus in his right knee, the Nets need even more from Johnson, the 15-year veteran who has logged nearly 40,000 regular-season minutes.
On Monday night, in his team's first game post-Jack injury, Johnson had the ball in his hands quite often. He finished with 21 points -- nine in the fourth quarter -- 6 rebounds, 4 assists and 2 turnovers in 35 minutes. But a miscue-plagued first quarter doomed the Nets in a 103-94 loss to the Boston Celtics at Barclays Center, where they have dropped seven in a row. Brooklyn (10-24) had 8 of its 14 turnovers in the opening period and trailed 37-22 heading into the second.
"I think we've gotten past the fact that Jarrett is not going be back with us this year, so guys have to step up," Johnson, 34, said. "But it was the first quarter that killed us. I'll take ownership for the majority of it as far as turnovers (he had both of his miscues in the first) and getting guys the ball in the right spots to make plays and then guarding my man defensively."
Brooklyn's starting point guard Shane Larkin and his backup, Donald Sloan, combined for just nine points, five assists and four turnovers while shooting 4 for 12 from the field. Nets general manager Billy King said the team plans to stick with what they already have on the roster, so it's going to be up to Johnson, who was already serving as a key facilitator, to pick up a lot of the slack in that department. Jack was averaging 12.8 points and 7.4 assists per game.
"We need Joe to facilitate and score, and he did a nice job tonight," Nets coach Lionel Hollins said. "I think that with our personnel, we have very few guys that are playmakers. Jarrett was one of them and Joe is one of them, so obviously with Jarrett out, Joe is going to get more opportunities to be (the primary) playmaker."
After averaging just 8.6 points on 31.9 percent shooting from Dec. 10 to the end of 2015 (11 games), Johnson has notched back-to-back 20-point games for the first time this season while going a combined 17-for-34 from the field. His usage rate has also gone up from 17.4 percent in 2015 to 23.6 percent in the past two games, a product of Jack not being on the court and having the ball in his hands the majority of the time like usual.
"I never get down on myself," said Johnson, who is shooting just 31.7 percent on shots 15 feet or further, according to NBA.com research. "I'm an even-keeled kinda guy, so I'll put this behind me and move forward, but yeah it's great to see a few of (my shots) go down."
Johnson's defense, however, continues to be an issue -- especially when he's trying to guard quicker players on drives to the basket. According to NBA.com research, he's allowing opposing players to shoot 77.2 percent from inside six feet -- 17 percent higher than the average player. The Nets are also giving up a staggering 107.2 points per 100 possessions with Johnson on the court.
Nevertheless, for all his shortcomings on that end, Johnson still remains someone who opposing defenses must plan for in the scouting report. He has posted a near 2:1 assist-turnover ratio for the 2015-16 campaign.
"I enjoy doing it," Johnson said of facilitating. "Whatever it takes for us to be in a ballgame and try to get wins. I'm all for it."
If his 2015-16 season to date is any indication, it's unlikely that Johnson, who came in ranked 54th out of 64 qualifying small forwards in PER (8.47), sustains this type of production -- especially given that he's averaging 34.8 minutes per game. But he certainly provides value to the Nets, who are 8.5 games back of the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, and lack consistent depth on the wing.
This has certainly been a tough season for Johnson, who hasn't missed the playoffs since 2006. He has said all the right things about his role, his underwhelming play, etc. But his frustrations have been evident as the losses have mounted. Unfortunately, his $24.9 million salary makes him a difficult candidate to trade. And the Nets, who don't have control over their 2016 first-round pick, have no incentive to buy him out.
Johnson's best bet is to keep giving his all and lead by example like he always has. He'll certainly have his opportunities to do so in Brooklyn. And perhaps, in six weeks, he and his team's situation will change.
Injured rookies Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Chris McCullough should be back around the All-Star break. Maybe by that point, the Nets will reward Johnson for being a good solider with a chance to join a contender like Cleveland or another team.
Until then, Johnson will have to gut it out with the Nets, who seemingly need him even more now than ever.
"I'm just being aggressive, taking what the defense gives and not forcing anything," Johnson said. "I'm just playing off my guys like I've been doing all year."