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2017-18 Clippers Exit Interviews: Wesley Johnson

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A look at the occasionally competent veteran forward.

NBA: Sacramento Kings at Los Angeles Clippers Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Name: Wesley Johnson

Age: 30

Years in NBA: 8

Key Stats: 5.4 points and 2.9 rebounds in 20.1 minutes per game (74 appearances, 40 starts). 40.8% FG shooting and 33.9% 3PT shooting.

2017-2018 Salary: $5,881,260

Future Contract Status: Player option for $6,134,000 for 2018-19.

Summary:

Jeff Green has had a disappointing NBA career, full of unrealized (imagined?) potential. Lance Stephenson was a massively disappointing Clipper, stumbling repeatedly after promising early years in Indiana. Both of those players were supposed to be the missing piece that the Clippers needed in 2015-16—first Lance, then Jeff. Neither was a quality NBA contributor. In fact, the best part about the Jeff Green and Lance Stephenson eras was that neither continued past the end of the 2016 season.

The worst part of the Wesley Johnson era is that, unlike those other disappointing wing options, Johnson was re-signed in the summer of 2016 to a three-year mid-level exception contract. Wesley was mediocre in his first season with the Clippers—enough to warrant a roster spot for the next season, though perhaps as the 10th or 11th man, not a core rotation player on an MLE deal. During the first year of his new inflated contract, though, he was far worse—losing rotation status and averaging less than 12 minutes a game. This past season, he was slightly better, but still not really very good.

Wesley entered the season as Doc Rivers’ clear favorite at the backup forward position, taking minutes at SF and PF behind Danilo Gallinari and Blake Griffin. Sam Dekker, who was even less reliable than Johnson, was Doc’s other option, and Wesley got the minutes by default. But when Clippers starters began dropping as injuries piled up, Wesley’s deficiencies became more glaring with more minutes. Playing 20 minutes a game and earning 40 starts is more of a condemnation of Johnson’s play than a testament towards its quality—by December, the Clippers were starting two two-way contract players, C.J. Williams and Jamil Wilson at the forward positions ahead of Johnson. As the season wore on, a third two-way contract player, Tyrone Wallace, established himself ahead of Wesley in the rotation. Montrezl Harrell, playing out of position at power forward next to DeAndre Jordan in lineups that offered no spacing, emerged as a more viable option than Wes. The only three players Wesley regularly bested for minutes at the forward positions were second-round rookie Sindarius Thornwell, Sam Dekker, and Brice Johnson—and at times, even Thornwell played ahead of him. As far as Dekker and Brice go, outplaying them is hardly impressive—neither of them were able to get playing time on a team that regularly featured multiple second-round rookies and G-League players.

Now, going forward, the Clippers’ greatest position of need is likely Wesley’s—they need a quality backup combo forward behind Danilo Gallinari and Tobias Harris, especially given Gallinari’s injury history. And while Wes is a backup combo forward, he’s far too inconsistent to count as quality.

Strengths:

Wesley’s best strength is what it says just under the title—occasional competence. He goes through stretches, sometimes a few weeks at a time, where he can convert spot-up threes at average efficiency and defend capably within the team system. That’s what he brings—intermittent capability as a average three-point shooter and the ability to use his length and athleticism as a team help defender as a backup power forward.

Weaknesses:

Wes’ weaknesses are all of the basketball-related things not listed in the brief paragraph above—things like dribbling and staying in front of opponents defensively. He only grabbed 5.2 rebounds per 36 minutes. He registered less than an assist a game. Also, one big weakness is that he can’t perform his strengths with any regularity. His three-point mark last season was just 33.9%, in line with his career average. That mark just isn’t good enough for a player who can’t do anything else offensively and isn’t a game-changer defensively. And despite defense being a strength, it’s not uncommon for him to be a negative on that end, too.

Future with Clippers:

If Wesley Johnson was a free agent this summer, would he end up on an NBA roster next season? It’s not inconceivable. The league is turning towards 6’8” athletes—tons of teams are using them at three positions, which means there’s a high demand. That demand is way higher than the supply of quality players in that mold, which is why teams talk themselves in to guys like Jeff Green... and Wesley Johnson.

But it’s pretty inconceivable to imagine Wesley Johnson getting more than the league minimum this off-season, which means he won’t be a free agent at all: he’ll opt in to the final season of his contract with the Clippers, where they’ll pay him $6.1 million. The real choice for the Clippers comes after that: do they keep that expiring contract as a piece of salary filler for potential trades at the 2019 deadline, or do they release him to save a roster spot to that they don’t have to cut ties with one of their prospects or more useful fringe roster players.