We’ll Miss You, Chris Johnson

Steve McPherson —  October 29, 2013 — 6 Comments

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.

Steve McPherson

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6 responses to We’ll Miss You, Chris Johnson

  1. Sad day. Like you said, Steve, not very surprising considering Adelman always seemed reluctant to play Chris (and while I’m sure he watched the tape, he was home sick with his wife and didn’t see his Herculean effort against the Rockets last year). As someone who watched that Rockets game live and became instantly endeared to him, I don’t fully understand all the mechanics of him getting cut.

    I get with Gorgui Dieng that the Wolves had committed to him as their back-up center for the near future. Even with my limited understanding of NBA defense, I could see times when Johnson would over-rotate or get bullied by heavier/stronger bigs. But even at $1mil, he struck me as having a similar skill-set and body-type as Anthony Randolph who got a big contract from Denver but CJ is much cheaper and much harder working. I don’t know what Adelman saw at practice or on film, but Chris seemed like the perfect energy guy to throw out their for 10mins a game. What the fans saw last year (and is confirmed by advanced stats) that in the 30 games Johnson played, he was a major plus on offense without being a total liability on defense. So does anyone know why Chris got let go in favor of Price and Hummel?

  2. I was surprised they didn’t keep Jeffers – he seemed to be a match up problem for other teams and his physicality allowed him to get a lot of offensive boards. Perhaps he was terrible on defense?

  3. It will always come down to the same things it’s come down to since coaches stopped divvying up playing time equally: production and effectiveness in practice. These guys are trying to get ready for the season, and placing too much emphasis on the actual games is counterproductive for all parties. With Johnson, there’s a selective memory and small sample size that doesn’t match up with the hours of video evidence accumulated by the coaching staff. I liked watching his dunks and blocks, but he had 5 nonexistent games for every good game.

  4. I don’t think it’s really fair to say that CJ had “non-existent” games. He had games where Adelman didn’t let him off the bench. And he had games where he was tentative, playing with established NBA players. But it’s not really his fault. He has bounced around, all over the place, tyring to play. It can’t really be that big of a shock that when he finally made it to the NBA, he was overwhelmed, at times. But I think the point that everyone is missing here, is that it wasn’t as much about his ability, as it was about numbers. Love, Pekovic, Turiaf, Dieng, and Cunningham. Those are your PF’s and/or C’s. And if D-Will isn’t able to carry his weight at the 3, he is in the mix at PF, as well. So that just leaves no time for a Chris Johnson.

    I was suprised that Hummel made the team. But it actually kind of makes sense. He adds some depth at SF, for the time being. I suspect that once Budinger comes back, we will see him sent back to D-League. But that is a ways out, and you never know what could happen between then and now.

  5. I suspect Rubio’s next contract will be well past seven-figures, into the eight-figures.

  6. Just got 2 new puppies, Rubio and Love. I assume they are magic and will push the twolves to at least the Western Conference Finals.

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