2013 Offseason

Roster Review: Chris Johnson


We’re kicking off our offseason coverage here at A Wolf Among Wolves with a comprehensive roster review of the team from this past season, looking at how each player’s 2012-13 went and what we see for them going forward. One player a day for the next couple weeks, starting with the bench and rolling up to the starters.

Folk hero. Fan favorite. Stopgap. Stringbean.

Chris Johnson was all these things and more for the Timberwolves this season. He was, in some ways, a supremely concentrated basketball experience, delivering block after block or dunk after dunk every time he saw the floor and yet not really seeing the floor all that much. Just take, for example, this litany of throwdowns he generated against the Houston Rockets in his season debut on January 19:

In the 30 games he played this season, he only averaged 9.5 minutes per game. But per 36 minutes he averaged 14.8 points, 7.6 rebounds and 3.5 blocks. He shot 64 percent with an above-average PER of 18.4 and put up a kind of silly offensive rating of 119 points per 100 possessions while allowing 101 points per 100 possessions. A net rating of 18 is nothing to sneeze at.

And there’s more. In the restricted area, Johnson shot 81.4 percent. For comparison’s sake, Derrick Williams only managed 58.1 percent in the restricted area. Hell, PEKOVIC only managed 60.8 percent down there. Some of that, certainly, comes from the fact that he isn’t asked to be a focal point of the offense, but it also shows that when he is getting shots at the rim, he’s finishing them.

When he saw the floor, he thrilled fans with his alley-oop finishing and emphatic blocks. He also showcased a jumper that was somewhat inconsistent but featured the kind of high release that makes LaMarcus Aldridge such a tough cover.

All of which makes you wonder: Why didn’t he see more playing time for a Wolves team that was not only short on players, but often short on the kind of feelgood energy that Johnson brought?

Well, for one, Adelman always seemed reluctant to put Johnson on the floor for extended minutes against the league’s stronger power forwards and centers. Johnson is listed at 6’11” and 210 pounds, which seems generous, given that Pekovic is listed at the same height and 290 and looks to be about three times the width of Johnson. We saw Johnson doing well when he was initially signed out of the D-League and then on occasion when he was brought in for very specific assignments and minutes. It was hard not to think of what he could do with more. But ultimately, I think Adelman was right to not lean too heavily on Johnson this season. More playing time likely would have exposed his weaknesses. Sometimes folk heroes are folk heroes because we know so little about them, the facts of their stories stripped away and replaced with legends.

So what happens for Johnson next season? I, for one, would like to see him stick around. With a full offseason of work, he could likely gain strength—if not mass—and also put in the work necessary to make that midrange jumper a threat. In a league that’s increasingly going small, he could play a role as a long but quick power forward capable of finishing on the break and providing weakside defensive help on a team that lacks rim protection in its starting lineup. I doubt retaining him would have much of an impact on the bottom line when it comes to re-signing players like Pekovic and Budinger, and the above-listed qualities make him a completely competent fourth or fifth guy in the frontcourt rotation.

Plus, I want to get a chance to push my first-and-last-initials-inspired nickname for him, “The Siege.”

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0 thoughts on “Roster Review: Chris Johnson

  1. I agree with you 100 percent. I was bummed he didn’t see the floor more. I would love to see him get an entire season with the Wolves to learn from some veterans. Become a project of Sikma’s perhaps.

  2. CJ certainly has flaws but there’s no question he had more NBA moments than D-League ones. The most frustrating thing for me was Stiemsma getting run over him and producing considerably worse. Johnson is the type of player that fits well alongside Rubio and I wish Adelman would have given him more consistent minutes (15-18), rather than feed them to an under producing Stiemsma. Like you said, his per 36 minute production was pretty impressive.

    I agree with you that CJ’s a low-cost option as a fifth big who can play either the four or five and give you something you don’t get from other bigs on the squad. I’d like to see him stick around and get the minutes Stiemsma received this year. That, however, would most likely be contingent on ridding ourselves of Stiemsma, who makes a lot more dough than CJ ($2,575,000 vs. $346,781).

  3. Didn’t Stiemsma’s contract contain a team option that has to be picked up for the second year? If so, when does that need to be done by? I agree that there should be a place on the roster for someone like Johnson, especially if the team doesn’t draft a big man with one of their two first round picks.

  4. The Houston game was fun, but it came against a tired team who committed an uncommon number of fouls and had a similarly skinny big. As for him vs. Stiemsma, I’ll go back to Zach’s Q a few months ago: do you trust Adelman? If he thought it was the right move, I’m ok with it, not because he’s perfect but because he probably had good reasons.

    The unanswered question in all of this is why he showed little before this point of his career. He’s the same age as Pek and Stiemsma and 3 years older than Love. It just seems weird that he’s thought of as having untapped potential when he played 4 years in college, didn’t make his NBA debut for 2 years after that, and hasn’t lasted a full season on any NBA roster.

  5. Everything I’ve seen shows that the Wolves have him locked up for next year at the league minimum. If true, that is very, very smart of them.

  6. gjk: I think one of the major challenges for young players in the NBA is figuring out who they are. If you look, for example, at a player like Nick Collison, I think he knew very early on that what he was going to be was a big man role player. He’s only gotten better in that role, but to expect him to be a starter-level contributor is probably misguided.

    With Johnson, his role might not be as obvious since its predicated on athleticism (dunks/blocks) but he’s also very slender. Derrick Williams is in a tough spot right now because it’s not clear whether he can be a go-to player or if that’s even how he would be best used. I don’t think he really has sixth man qualities, so I don’t know how he would best be used.

    Remember that any given player’s success is a combination of how he sees himself and how the team sees him. When these things work together—as they do for teams with an established pattern of maximizing players like the Spurs—it’s great. I think Johnson can find a place on the Wolves if they hang onto him.

  7. I should preface all of this: I have no problem with having him around at a minimum salary; after seeing him in preseason, I wanted them to keep him and cut Lou. It just seems illogical to question how young players like Rubio/Shved/Williams are going to improve while talking about the potential of a 27-year-old who’s played fewer minutes in his career than Love played last season.

    My questions about Johnson and his age have little to do with understanding a niche and everything to do with physical and schematic aspects of a game. He’s known for years that he needs to add weight/muscle, and this is where he’s at. For every dunk or block, there were at least 1-2 instances of a post-up player treating him like a 7′ tall stick. Guys guarding him could bend him in half with a simple arm bar in his back.

    Also, are we sure he’s a good defender besides the blocks? He was in the top 4 in the league in blocks per 36 minutes, but Stiemsma was in the top 14. Setting Stiemsma aside because they have options at backup C besides those 2, what does the tape tell us about his ability to be where he’s supposed to? I’m not sure because it’s tough for me to follow that closely without video, but it’s an important question. He was with the team for all of training camp, so it’s not like he wasn’t aware of their schemes.

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