We'll Miss You, Chris Johnson
It’s old news by now that over the weekend the Wolves waived Othyus Jeffers and Lorenzo Brown, instead retaining Robbie Hummel and A.J. Price. Color me a little surprised they didn’t keep Jeffers given his physicality in the backcourt and based on Hummel’s ho-hum(mel) preseason, but Adelman praised both him and A.J. Price, singling out Hummel’s work ethic during the week gap between preseason games the Wolves had.
What was less surprising, though — given how little floor time he saw in the preseason — was the release of Chris Johnson. In the grand scheme of things, Johnson’s tenure with the Timberwolves will not much matter, either to the team or to the league as a whole. But there are so many subtle undercurrents inside of it that are worthy of attention, revealing things that may not always be as apparent in the more opaque dealings that happen around star players.
When Johnson arrived from the D-League’s Santa Cruz Warriors, he contributed mightily to a 92-79 victory over the Houston Rockets, instantly turning into a fan favorite with his alley-oop dunks and emphatic rim protection. Although he fell deeper into the bench as the season wore on and more healthy bodies returned to the fray, he still flashed exciting athleticism and even a nice midrange jumper with a good, high release.
But then a weird thing happened: For reasons known only to him, David Kahn signed Johnson to a guaranteed $916,000 contract for 2013-14 towards the end of last season. As a result, letting Johnson go means more than just a handshake and a pat on the back: the Wolves have to pay him that $916,000.
Now, again, in the grand scheme of things this isn’t a huge deal for the Wolves. Not when you’re deciding whether to pick up a $6.2 million option on Derrick Williams and worrying if the seven-figure contract you’ll likely have to offer Ricky Rubio is going to lock up too much cap space. For the Wolves, it’s maybe not as much about the money as it is about friction between the coaching staff and the front office. Johnson — for whatever reason — never became one of Adelman’s “guys.” And that’s fine: coaching isn’t just about what happens on the court or maximizing efficiency. There’s a granularity to the makeup of a team that’s too fine — as of right now — to discern with an advanced stat. Coaches sense or feel this more than measure it. Some of them are good at it, some are bad, and I think Adelman has earned the right to go with that feel.
So it weirdly seemed like Kahn was sticking it to Adelman by committing to Johnson, and now maybe Flip Saunders is working to repair that bridge between the coaching staff and the front office by ponying up for Johnson’s contract. If it forges trust and singlemindedness between those two facets of the team, $916,000 is a pittance.
But stuck in the middle of all this is Johnson. He’s always come across to me as a straight-shooter, a guy with a lot of athletic ability and a pretty good sense of what he was capable of and best at on the floor. He worked hard for his shot in the NBA. And any of us would probably be all right with our employer saying, “You know, it’s not working out but thanks for your time and here’s almost a million dollars.” It’s entirely possible Johnson is all right with this, too, but I wouldn’t bet on it. He’s once again turned loose on the basketball world he wandered for so long, bouncing from Turkey to Poland to Portland to Boston to North Dakota to the Dominican Republic to Santa Cruz and finally Minnesota. But now he’s 28 and a guy who lost his spot on an NBA team.
Is he better off than thousands of other guys in D-League or around the world who never got a guaranteed million dollar contract? Yes, and that million dollars will help him a lot as he keeps grinding, whether he’s after more basketball or ready for something else. But there’s probably at least part of him that would give that money back now for a chance to play some more in the NBA.