EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. - Joe Johnson couldn't believe the guy who served as the face of the Nets wanted to split town that badly.
Deron Williams agreed to a buyout of his contract in July, freeing him up to sign with his hometown Dallas Mavericks once he cleared waivers, and Johnson was surprised that he elected to walk away from the Nets and give up on the situation.
"What did he have, like two years left on his deal?" Johnson said Monday at Nets media day. "I don't know if he wanted the buyout, if they just bought him out. I don't know. I'm just saying if he wanted to get bought out, I don't think it was that big of a deal, that bad. That's just me."
Johnson said he hasn't spoken to Williams since he left, something that offered insight into their relationship. A moody Williams often alienated himself from his Nets teammates, including Johnson.
When they acquired Johnson in the summer of 2012, the Nets marketed the two as the league's best backcourt, introducing them to the masses together at an elaborate ceremony at Brooklyn Borough Hall. But Williams did not consistently produce a level of play worthy of his five-year, $99-million contract. He succumbed to a rash of injuries that ate into his explosiveness and overall effectiveness.
Understanding the nature of the business, Johnson figured that after the Nets lost to the Hawks in the first round of the playoffs in April, the roster wasn't going to look the same heading into 2015-16. A voluntary departure by Williams wasn't on his radar, though.
"Honestly, I didn't know what was going to happen -- if I was going to get traded, if he was going to get traded," Johnson said. "I didn't really know. But I didn't see that coming. I didn't see that coming, him getting bought out. I don't think it was that bad. It's not that bad here, so to be wanting to get bought out, I couldn't really put my fingers around that one.
"But I hear that he's happy, so that's the most important thing for him. He's back at home. So good for him."
Johnson, 34, logged 2,791 minutes last season -- his most since 2009-10 -- with plenty coming at power forward, especially before the Nets traded for Thaddeus Young in February. Banging with bigger bodies and the rigors of playing away from the perimeter were likely contributors to Johnson averaging 14.4 points, his lowest since posting 9.8 points per game in 2002-03.
Coach Lionel Hollins doesn't plan to insert Johnson at the position as much this season, preferring to use him more at small forward if possible.
He has Andrea Bargnani and others who can shift to power forward, alleviating the need to continuously ride Johnson.
One thing is for sure: Johnson has never been more needed as a vocal leader, a role he's embracing. As one of the oldest players on a team infused with youth, serving as a veteran guide and calming presence is imperative.
"Significantly," Johnson said. "I know it's going to be really upon myself, J-Jack [Jarrett Jack], Brook [Lopez]. Especially me and Brook kind of have to step out of our comfort zone a little bit as far as being vocal and leading these guys in the right direction. It's a challenge for us, but it's not that big of a deal. We'll have fun and we'll get it done."