James Johnson, the most underwhelming and, at the same time, understandable signings made this summer. Ujiri dipped into his back pocket for spare change, threw it in the air, and out of the bushes leaps James Johnson to snuff the pack of quarters before they even hit the ground. There’s your defensive specialist for you, there’s the guy that’ll stop next year’s Joe Johnson, and that’s the guy that’ll push Ross for minutes.
For a $2.5 million salary, a player of Johnson’s caliber is about what you’re going to get and that’s not necessarily a bad thing, given the constraints Ujiri was operating under. Over the last couple years Johnson has matured into a different player than what Raptors fans may remember from his time between 2010-12. He remains a horrendous three-point shooter, shooting a woeful 25% while taking a career-high 1.7 threes per game last season, meaning the rumours that he’s here for his floor stretchability are vastly exaggerated (even from corner positions as seen below).
He remains a player who will only be as good as the system he plays in. Put him in a situation where he’s allowed freedom on offense, and he’s liable to kill you with his propensity to look for his shot, like he did under Sacramento’s lax playbook. Put him in a defined role, like Memphis did, and you get a player that moves very well without the ball, has a very serviceable pump-fake, and can finish while contested, at least when he’s attacking from the right side of the rim. Despite being a poor three-point shooter, there is one area on the court where he’s above the league average and that’s on the right wing. If the Raptors are able to position him on the court well, he may be able to space the floor just a little, but it’s not something you can count on. In that sense, he’s very much like Landry Fields, a guy whose offense you cannot rely on but whose defense can be valuable. The following play against the Spurs is a good example of the type of off-the-ball movement that Johnson has improved in over the last year:
Comparing him to John Salmons, he’s a worse three-point shooter but moves better without the ball. He’s more liable to cut to the rim from the weak-side than Salmons (partially because he’s now realized that he’s a bad shooter) , and is physically stronger than the latter when facing contact or pressure.
Where Johnson beats out the incumbent Fields and the departed Salmons is his defense. Once he realized and accepted that no matter how much he tried, it wasn’t his offense that was going to cut him an NBA cheque, Johnson made a concerted effort to focus on the defensive side of his game, where his 6’9” frame comes in handy, and was greatly helped in this regard by Memphis’s defensive setup.
With Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph manning the paint behind him, Johnson was able to play tight defense on the perimeter, knowing that there was cover waiting in case he was beat. His long arms, good stance in isolation situations, and ability to play the correct angles was an asset to Dave Joerger’s 8th ranked defense which was comfortable funnelling drives to the rim. Applying pressure on the perimeter knowing that there’s a second line waiting is a comforting thought for a coach, and a formula that the Thunder follow to good effect with a healthy Serge Ibaka. Memphis takes that approach to the extreme.
This is not to discount Johnson’s defensive qualities, he affords his coach the luxury of slowing down an opposing threat without having to structure the whole team’s defense around it. Though the narrative has been played out, the Raptors against Joe Johnson and the Nets was a good example for a need for this type of player. We saw how valuable a defensive asset Trevor Ariza was to the 7th ranked Washington defense as he guarded three positions on his way to disrupting offenses. Even he benefited from having a strong defensive frontcourt to bail out any over-commitments on the perimeter, now he departs to Houston where Dwight Howard plays a similar role. Something tells me Ariza knows what to seek out in a team to make himself appear better.
Back to Johnson, though, in Toronto he’s going to have to adjust his game to be less aggressive on the wing since the Raptors don’t have the rim-protection Memphis does. Instead of blocks and at-rim contests, the Raptors (who were 23rd in blocks) rely on wing players stepping inside and big men stepping out to pick up charges and divert play. It’s a strategy that relies much more on timing, team communication, and game awareness, rather than pure athletic ability and reach. As much as Johnson’s defensive value is in covering key offensive players in one-on-one situations, it’s how he fits into this fluid Raptors defense that will ultimately determine whether he’s successful or not.
Johnson should also, at the very least, influence Raptors practices very positively. One of my major peeves in the Bryan Colangelo era was the lack of depth at key positions, which meant that practices for players like Chris Bosh and Jose Calderon were a relative breeze. Adding a lengthy defensive player like Johnson into the mix means players such as DeMar DeRozan and Terrence Ross will have to work that much harder in practice, thus getting more out of them. Once Rudy Gay was traded there wasn’t any real competition for Ross on his way to the starting lineup. While this helped get Ross more playing time and develop faster, it also meant that he didn’t have to look over his shoulder much which led to him getting a little lackadaisical at times. Johnson isn’t going to uproot Ross, but he will make him fight for his place harder than a combination of Salmons and Fields would, which in turn should fuel Ross’s engine that bit more.
The Raptors have a rotation where they don’t need to hide many players on defense, which makes lineup construction that much easier for Dwane Casey. The only players you can make a case for being bad defenders are Greivis Vasquez and DeMar DeRozan. The former can pose problems on account of his size, while the latter, well, the latter is a bad defender whose offensive value far exceeds his defensive shortcomings. Replacing Salmons with the seven-year younger and two inches taller Johnson means that the Raptors rotation has improved defensively, affording Dwane Casey options. Johnson’s size and rebounding would lend itself well to small-ball lineups, or in situations where defensive pressure needs to be increased. Presently, the best Raptors defensive lineup is Kyle Lowry, Terrence Ross, James Johnson, Amir Johnson, and possibly, Jonas Valanciunas or Bebe Nogueira, depending on if you’re looking for rebounding or shot-blocking. Conditional on how far along Ross is with his offense, that is a lineup that could be used to change games from a defensive standpoint without sacrificing too much offense.
James Johnson is the very definition of exploiting a constraint – a small tweak that could have a large impact. This James Johnson isn’t about what the previous James Johnson was about:
“Playing defence, being an opportunity scorer, just doing the little things. Every day, practice hard and try to get our guys to the next level with team defence. I’m just more mature about my game. I’m doing the little things, finding my niche nowadays. Getting opportunity to score when I can and if not, don’t worry about the offensive end.”
Defense? Opportunity scorer? Practice hard? Team defense? Little things? Niche? Don’t worry about the offensive end? Those are phrases you never would’ve associated with James Johnson 2010-12.