It’s not a home run move by any stretch of the imagination but hopefully it’s enough for J.J. Redick to re-grade the Clippers offseason from an F- to at least a solid F.
Johnson, who spent the past two seasons with the Los Angeles Lakers, will move across the hallway of Staples Center to join the Clippers on a one-year deal for the veteran’s minimum worth approximately $1.1 million.
Doc Rivers has spoken at length about getting “creative” in free agency thanks to the financial constraints surrounding the team and while signing a player who hasn’t met his potential on a standard veteran’s minimum contract is far from creative, it is a smart, low-risk move that Rivers is hoping will pay off.
In recent times, Rivers has paid the price for not nailing offseason acquisitions. Chris Douglas-Roberts and Jordan Farmar came and didn’t last the season and Spencer Hawes was traded for Lance Stephenson a few weeks back. Meanwhile, Ekpe Udoh played just 128 minutes for the Clippers last season.
The Clippers will be Johnson’s fourth team in six seasons. A highly touted prospect out of college, the Timberwolves gambled and took the 6’7 swingman with the 4th pick of the 2010 draft — one pick before DeMarcus Cousins (and before other stars Gordon Hayward and Paul George).
Johnson, who turns 28 this weekend, still tantalises with a preposterous wingspan, freakish athleticism and the prospect of “putting it all together”. However, if he had, he would’ve certainly been outside of the Clippers price range.
Johnson has never played for a good team in his career. His career winning percentage is just 38.7%. You know that historically bad Lakers team last year? Yeah, that was the most wins Johnson has ever experienced in a single season. In his two years in Laker Land Johnson played in 155 games and started a team-high 121 of them.
Over that span Johnson averaged 9.5 points, 4.3 rebounds and 1.6 assists per game. His PER, while not a perfect statistic, was just 11.1, which is below the league average. While Johnson shot a respectable 36% from deep over the past two seasons, last year he shot 38.3% from the left corner (a hair above the league average).
Rivers, who will be Johnson’s sixth coach in as many seasons, will be hoping to mold Johnson into a “3-and-D” type player. Although there’s no way he will be able to recreate the toughness of the now-departed Matt Barnes, Johnson will be called upon to knock down three-pointers while also using his size and athleticism on defense. Last season, 60.3% of Barnes shot attempts were 3-pointers. Alternately, Johnson’s shot distribution was almost the exact opposite (62.5% were 2-pointers). Even in Byron Scott’s anti-threes offense, Johnson managed to squeeze up a reasonable sample. However, his move down the hallway should mean a more defined role offensively and a lot more opportunities from deep.
Johnson’s a classic case of half-empty or half-full. Undoubtedly, the Clippers 2015-16 team will be the best he’s ever suited up for (with or without DeAndre Jordan) and don’t forget the Chris Paul effect. Up until this point, the best point guard Johnson has had the privilege of playing alongside is Goran Dragic (2012-13 in Phoenix). Besides that he’s had to depend on being fed by guys like Luke Ridnour, a rookie Ricky Rubio, Kendall Marshall and, more recently, Jeremy Lin. Chris Paul is not only a Top 15 player in the NBA, he’s also the best point guard of this generation at getting his teammates the ball when and where they should be getting it.
The Clippers are the best shot of bringing out the best in him. Sure, Johnson lure of “potential” is running out (if it hasn’t already). However, the chance to play for Doc Rivers in an offense led by Chris Paul (which also includes Blake Griffin, one of the best passing big men in the game), should give Johnson every opportunity he needs to succeed.
Of course, Johnson won’t be the Clippers primary option at the small forward position; the Clippers also signed L.A. native and future NBA Hall-of-Famer Paul Pierce to a 3-year deal earlier in free agency. However, at 37 years of age, Pierce is becoming a little long in the tooth and the rigours of an 82-game schedule (particular for the first time in his career out West) will be arduous.
As usual, Pierce went out with a bang in the playoffs for the Wizards – hitting game winners that counted (and some that didn’t) as well as trademarking his now famous phrase: “I called game”. However, in order to be in that position, the Wizards coaching staff had to ensure Pierce was well-rested come April. Last season, Pierce averaged a career low in minutes at just 26.2 minutes per game. He played even less after the All-Star break. He only played more than 30 minutes 15 times during the season and will likely hope to play even less in 2015-16 for the Clippers.
Pierce has successfully transitioned into a small-ball power forward, which was on full display during the playoffs (although, in fairness, he’s more of a one-way small ball power forward). In addition, Pierce is an exceptional 3-point shooter and can play the role of the release valve if the offense gets choked up. He proved in the playoffs that he hasn’t lost it knocking down 52.4% of his attempts. Pierce is by no means “done”; he just needs to be kept in the shed for Sunday drives and special occasions — not used to hit the shops on a daily basis. Hopefully, Wes Johnson can be a Toyota Camry.
In addition, there is another Clippers recent addition who will likely spend some time at the small forward position in Lance Stephenson, who has the length and tenacity to guard opposing small forwards, especially if the Clippers decide to go small. The Clippers still have Jordan Hamilton on a non-guaranteed deal and recent draftee Branden Dawson, who, despite lacking much semblance of any sort of offensive game, has been a standout during Summer League.
The Clippers have been a revolving door of small forwards for more than a decade: from Corey Maggette to Ryan Gomes to Jared Dudley. Paul Pierce is a known entity and brings the prestige. Will Wesley Johnson finally thrive and live up to (any of) the hype?