Watching this year’s NBA playoffs is a little bit of tantalizing experience. Typically Clippers fans can get away with adopting another team to root for (Oklahoma City, anyone?) and enjoying a refreshing brand of basketball that shines in comparison to the 82-game trainwreck they just endured. But this year, things are a little different.
The Clippers are heading into this offseason with only five players on contract and no head coach. Needless to say, the cupboard is relatively bare. In just a few short months it will be time to take that saved up cash and go shopping in an effort to stock up the ol’ cupboard. Since the Clippers haven’t been an active player in free agency for a few years, it’s easy to imagine them as the starving grocery shopper who has had nothing but Top Ramen for the last three days — everything in the store is looking really, really good to them right now. The Clippers will drool over the filet mignon of the free agent class in Lebron James just like everyone else, but perhaps there’s a more realistic option a few aisles down.
It’s no secret that the Clippers desperately crave a small forward. The fulfillment checklist for this forward seems to grow by the day; he needs to be a defensive stopper, an effective threat from the perimeter, a solid defensive rebounder, a clutch scorer, and a good distributor with playmaking abilities. We’ve long discussed plugging in a “glue guy” at the small forward position. If Rasual Butler was Elmer’s Glue (was Maggette scotch tape?), the Clippers ideal guy to stick at the 3 spot needs to be some sort of magical crazy glue.
When viewing the playoffs, you have to watch and wonder if Joe Johnson can be that guy.
Perhaps the most frustrating thing about the Clippers’ play this season was their propensity to completely collapse in the fourth quarter. Surely some of this will be healed by a more coherent and consistent offensive system, but the Clippers’ current personnel is a little limited in their late game options. What the playoffs really illuminate is that all good teams have star players they can lean on offensively in tight games. Down the stretch you absolutely need to have a closer, and it’s been previously established again and again that the Clippers currently don’t employ one.
According to 82games.com, Joe Johnson is one of the best players in the league in clutch situations, which are defined as the 4th quarter or overtime, with less than 5 minutes left, with neither team ahead by more than 5 points. Johnson ranks 8th in the league in points per 48 minutes in the clutch, and out of the players who scored more than him, only that LeBron fella shot a higher field goal percentage. Also of note: Johnson shot 44% from the three point line and 88% from the free throw line in those situations. The dude has ice water in his veins.
What’s most impressive about watching Johnson play though is the manner in which he gets it done for Atlanta. It’s not with multiple ball screens or pick and roll action — it’s straight isolation sets. His teammates give him the ball, they get out of the way, and most times, Johnson gets it done. The list of players who can consistently get buckets in that scenario is short. According to Synergy Sports, 36.7% of Joe Johnson’s total offense derives from isolation sets. That’s an outrageously high number, but after watching the Hawks collapse offensively down the stretch in game 5 against Milwaukee with Johnson fouled out, it starts to make sense. Having a guy who is battle proven in those situations could greatly benefit the Clippers offensive fourth quarter woes.
So what’s the knock on Joe Johnson? At 6-foot 7, he’s a little short to play the three. He’s only 28, but he’s accumulated quite a few miles over the years by regularly playing over 40 minutes a contest. And well…that’s about it. Any way you slice it, Johnson is one of the most consistent, reliable offensive forces in the entire league.
Trust me, I understand that it’s fun to daydream about LeBron James, but that’s just not happening. Johnson is the somewhat realistic target to keep an eye on this postseason. He’s not flashy, but as we’ve learned, that’s definitely not a bad thing. The Clippers need to take a meat and potatoes approach to free agency this time around, and there may not be an available player who better symbolizes that than Joe Johnson.