James Johnson has acquitted himself quite well in the past two preseason games. He’s scoring more efficiently, taking better shots, and making quick, quality decisions with the basketball. He spent all summer working out hard at the berto center getting into outstanding physical condition and appears to take his basketball career quite seriously. He’s always had the physical tools, timing, and instincts to play great defense, but his improved athleticism gives him even greater upside on that side of the court.
So with all that said, has he done enough for the Bulls to pick up his option or is he the next Joe Alexander, a somewhat raw, young player who’s third year option was declined after a similar mixed bag rookie season?
The case for Johnson:
The case for Johnson is fairly straight forward. He’s only played one NBA season and was coached by a doofus in an offense that was terrible, and ultimately his head coach didn’t trust him enough to give him enough chances to show what he could do. Johnson’s minutes came in small bursts, he was constantly looking over his shoulder, and his role changed frequently. The Bulls also tried to play him primarily at SF when his body was more suited to playing PF which didn’t give him the matchup advantages he could have enjoyed.
As a result, Johnson struggled in many ways. However, the biggest of which were fouls and turnovers. Remove those two things, and Johnson’s stat line per 36 minutes isn’t so bad. 12.2 points, 3.3 FTAs, 6.1 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 1 steal, and 2 blocks on 45% shooting, 32% from the three point line, and 53% TS%. It’s not an elite stat line, but it’s absolutely a stat line of a keeper. The block + steal metric is extremely high, and he showed at least some ability in passing, rebounding, scoring, and drawing fouls.
Now obviously we can’t simply throw away fouls and turnovers, however, gauging past players, the number one and number two thing they’re likely to improve upon with experience is fouls and turnovers. I find it highly likely that even under the same constraints as last season, JJ would improve in both areas. However, under Thibodeau’s tutelage that seems like a lock.
Thus far, Johnson’s preseason stats haven’t looked too much different than last year’s stats in terms of totals, but the difference is all in the efficiency numbers. 52% from the field, 66% (only 3 attempts) from the three point line, less than 1 TO per 36 minutes vs 3.5 assists per 36 minutes. Johnson’s making better decisions with the basketball. He’s letting the game come to him, and he’s playing smart basketball.
His on court performance has improved considerably since the first couple of pre-season game as well, so he’s trending upwards.
Off the court, he’s obviously put in the work to get his body in great shape, but he’s also worked hard with the coaching staff all off-season to prove he belongs. They’ve seen first hand how dedicated Johnson is to improving at the game of basketball. I’d imagine that he’s impressed them with his conditioning, effort, and improvement.
If there was no business end to this thing, I’d think Johnson’s play and work ethic merit his option being picked up to have another shot at this thing for certain. However, there’s always a business side which brings me to ….
The case against Johnson:
I think to many fans, the case against Johnson seems closed given his play thus far, but let’s not forget this is a small sample of games in pre-season against dicey competition, and Johnson still hasn’t really blown anyone away over that stretch.
The problem with Johnson’s option is the business side. His option for next season is for 2.8 million dollars. The Bulls aren’t likely to have many available minutes for Johnson even after playing well. Luol Deng’s not about to get benched for him and neither is Kyle Korver. In the best case scenario, he’s third in the depth chart at SF and third in the depth chart at PF. He could find himself at 4th in both positions as well.
Where do Johnson’s opportunities come from to play? If he really outplays Brewer/Bogans then he may push their playing time with Korver getting more time at the two and Johnson playing at the three, but it’s simply difficult to see Johnson make such a leap. As such, is Johnson really a 3 million dollar player next year? Are you really going to have to pay more than 2.8 million to keep him if you simply refuse the option and look to bring him back as a FA if he proves himself?
Sure there’s some risk there, but given the roster’s construction the only way that seems likely is with an injury. Furthermore, the key players that are holding Johnson back this year are under contract for next year as well. Even if Johnson shows improvement, where does he get his minutes in a year with his option picked up? The Bulls simply don’t have a position open for him even if he’s playing at an NBA rotation player level because they have lots of rotation caliber players fighting with him that have more distinct strengths.
The on court ability is only part of the game though, if the Bulls continue on with trade talks with Carmelo Anthony or another top flight player than Johnson may be more appealing as an expiring than as a player with 2.8 million left on his contract next season. How other teams view Johnson impacts his value as a trade asset considerably, and without playing, it’s unlikely that other teams want the option picked up either.
As such, the Bulls may decline the option just to have the expiring salary to use as trade filler just in case someone becomes available.
If James Johnson’s option isn’t picked up, it won’t be for lack of effort on his part. He’s put in the work and the time. He’s shown enough spark that in most circumstances teams would want probably want to keep him around and see the project through. In fact, if it were any season but this one, I think the decision would be a no-brainer.
However, this year, the Bulls are done with projects. Sadly for JJ, things came a season too late, a tough standard since he’s only had one. However, he didn’t show enough that they could count on him going into this year, so the team stocked the roster with replacements on two to three year deals.
Without a defined role on the team now or one that looks like it will open up in a season, the Bulls may simply let Johnson explore his options elsewhere, which, for Johnson may end up being the best thing anyway.