Nearly two decades after trade to Suns, Joe Johnson makes history with return to Celtics

Joe Johnson with Celtics
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The Celtics drafted Joe Johnson No. 10 in 2001 then traded him to the Suns during his rookie season for veterans Rodney Rogers and Tony Delk. More than 11 years later, Johnson said of the trade: “I was able to get thrown into the starting lineup during the season, and I was playing great. I didn’t see it coming. I was a bit confused because I was playing pretty good.”

Except that’s nearly the opposite of what Johnson said when the trade happened: “I kind of figured something was going on because I wasn’t playing and there wasn’t a reason. So I figured something was going to go down sooner or later.”

Johnson’s shifting story is understandable. Memories fade, and agendas change. So much time had passed since Johnson left Boston.

It has now been another nine seasons.

Which means Johnson is making history by coming full circle.

The Celtics signed Johnson to a 10-day contract as NBA teams add replacement players amid coronavirus issues. Twenty seasons since his original stint in Boston, Johnson will shatter the record for time between stints with a franchise (once he actually plays).

The current record belongs to James Edwards, whom the Lakers drafted No. 46 in 1977. They traded him during his rookie year for Adrian Dantley. Edwards then returned to the Lakers as a free agent in 1992 – 15 years later.

Here are the players who’ve gone longest between stints with a franchise, by seasons since their prior term ended:

All seasons are denoted by their ending year.

For what it’s worth, Johnson started 33 of his 48 games with the Celtics as a rookie. But he was receiving DNP-CDs before getting dealt to the Suns.

Johnson developed considerably in Phoenix then became a seven-time All-Star with the Hawks and Nets. A journeyman phase to his career took him to the Heat, Jazz, Rockets, Big3 and USA Basketball. Johnson last played in the NBA in 2018, failing to make the Pistons’ roster the following year. The 40-year-old badly wanted to return to the league.

Along the way, like his recollection of his trade away, Johnson reflected differently on his Boston tenure.

Johnson in 2008: “I don’t remember a lot more of my time here. My playing time here was very short. I really don’t have any memories. It’s like it didn’t happen.”

Johnson in 2013: “It was brief, but every time I walk in this arena I’ve got a vivid imagination about how I used to walk through this tunnel and the locker room was right over there.”

Back with the Celtics all these years later, Johnson has an opportunity to once again share how he remembers his professional career starting. Grateful to be back in the NBA, he’ll probably be quite effusive this time.