Under Mike D’Antoni last season, the Los Angeles Lakers were a catastrophe.
They were begging for butchery on a nightly basis, allowing the second-most points of any team that hit the floor. Some opponents — mainly the rival Clippers — nearly broke the 150-point mark when they noticed purple and gold on their schedule.
Not many positives can be taken out of D’Antoni’s run in Hollywood. Instead of the red carpet fame, his public perception mirrored the events taking place in Ferguson, Missouri; hatred, sadness, and eyebrow-raising tactics. Okay, perhaps it wasn’t to that extreme, but the Los Angeles community has a lamentable way of hiding it.
Of the few positives could have been the offensive firepower he put on the floor each and every night. If the team was getting scorched on defense, there was still an exhilarating thrill to the game because the Lakers would be scoring at will themselves. It sounds hard to say that (without Kobe Bryant), but encouraging shots every time you’re remotely open from 3-point range will produce those scores. It builds up quickly.
One of the recipients of the points, who experienced the best year of his young career, was Wesley Johnson. Formerly a Syracuse Orange, Johnson set a career-high in points per game (9.1), rebounds (4.4), blocks (1.0), steals (1.1), and minutes (28.4).
Not only did his production take the correct turn, but he made sure he improved while making it the most efficient year he’s had. Johnson shot 42.5 percent from the field, and 37 percent from the perimeter, 4.7 percent higher than his mark the year before. From the charity stripe, he also improved his stroke, shooting 2.1 percent greater on his free throws (79.2 percent).
It’s not all about shooting with Johnson, though. While D’Antoni wanted all of his wings to be able to spot up and let the bullets fly out of the chamber, he also helped Johnson understand an aspect of the game that could save his career. It’s called movement, and the former Lakers coach taught it almost as well as anyone. Either that, or he had a genuine, self-teaching group of guys and a staff full of credible assistants.
Sitting back and looking at the following list, you leave your brain searching for reason and meaning: John Wall, Evan Turner, Derrick Favors, Wesley Johnson, and DeMarcus Cousins. Odd group, since the first and fifth names (Wall & Cousins) have transformed into top five players at their positions, while the three in-between have fed off mediocre careers thus far.
Executives aren’t always going to make the perfect decisions. It’s a an object called life, which includes mistakes on a daily basis. Over half of the league’s teams, if not 75 percent or more, will look back to drafts in hindsight, and ultimately ask if they were under nitrous oxide while deciding on their cornerstones. Minnesota rightfully raises it’s hand, with 2010 written on the palm.
To issue the proper context, things aren’t always what they seem during the shining moment. Teams draft the wrong player all the time, but only because it’s the clear-cut, obvious choice at the time. That’s what makes it too fallacious to say they were acting in an imbecilic manner during draft night. Wesley Johnson was an athletic powerhouse at Syracuse, and the Timberwolves needed more raw talent to place alongside a growing power forward. They just didn’t know Johnson would give them the literal definition of raw.
Living up to the No. 4 overall pick is a tall order. It becomes steeper when you realize a team either tanked a season, or ran into horrible luck on their path to get that selection. It creates more pressure than ever for these men to prove they fit into the franchise’s layout.
Johnson hasn’t even approached the place he needs to be. The confidence isn’t always there, and sometimes, neither are his tangibles during the year.
If there’s one part Johnson has forced us to learn from his first season in Los Angeles, however, it’s that the effort walks through the tunnel for all 82. That, and the physical ability he still holds leaves you to wonder how he’s managed to keep the “bust” label.
Johnson played numerous roles and positions last season, being thrown into the mix wherever D’Antoni pleased. It didn’t hurt him. Instead, it became his way of keeping that confidence and re-assurance on a level he’s never experienced. Playing for D’Antoni is probably more special than detrimental, because the green light is always there. It eliminates hesitation, and makes opponents respect your outside jumper if you can get it to fall. Then, the inside lanes open if you’re ever rushed off the 3-point line.
All through 2013-14, the Lakers would run a variety of sets to create openings for their shooters. Nonetheless, none were as simple and effective as a traditional screen roll drive with the point guard and center.
Of all people, Steve Blake and Robert Sacre (mostly Gasol), would draw attention during the pick-and-roll, and collect a team-wide collapse in the middle. Johnson — next to Nick Young, Jodie Meeks, and Xavier Henry — learned to benefit from just sitting back and waiting for things to unfold:
Cleveland, although in the bottom half of the league in defensive rating (19th), had guys that were more than capable of being attentive on defense. On top of that, they were coached by Mike Brown, who preaches defense as much as he tries to keep a coaching gig. To no avail, though, as the Lakers picked them apart with the screen roll.
It became beneficial for Johnson:
When Sacre set the primary screen on Jarrett Jack, it forces Tristan Thompson to slide in rotation toward the left side. Since Blake (even at his older age) is quicker than Thompson, look how much surveillance it brings to the ball.
Luol Deng, one of the top five defending small forwards, becomes totally invested in the drive. If Blake gets past Thompson for a scoop, someone has to be there to contest. Deng leaves the weak side of the court to tend to the matter, and Earl Clark (behind Sacre) is also in the process of moving towards the paint:
Blake is known to be the spot-up shooter for Los Angeles, nailing shots in clutch situations with the awkward release. Undermining his passing ability has turned into the norm, but he has one of the highest IQ’s of anyone on the roster last season. Some could argue that the team never missed a beat by having Steve Nash sit out 67 games with injury, because Blake always brought more hardcore production for 30+ minutes a night (before the elbow setback).
Blake gets into the lane near the rim, and the Jack/Thompson duo has already followed the pick-and-roll perfectly, preventing a dump-off pass to Sacre in the middle. Blake’s court vision is superb, realizing Wesley Johnson’s man has also left him out to dry. Deng is trapped next to Sacre on the play, which you can’t see. It’s far too much help on a drive with Sacre as the screener … far too much:
It’s not enough time for Deng to rotate back to the weak side, which becomes the point of emphasis once Johnson receives the pass. Shooting just 37.8 percent off catch-and-shoot opportunities (10th on the team), Johnson was respected by hardly anyone.
Making the most out of sitting back and letting shots come to you can go a long way, and that’s how he was able to accumulate 20-point nights last season.
The amount of sagging off defenses decided to do on the Lakers’ shooters is remarkable, considering they shot 38.1 percent from deep as a group, only two spots below first place in the league (Spurs, Mavericks). Jordan Farmar never warrants this much help, creating an hysteria of Cavaliers fleeing to keep up:
You may have something against Laker point guards. Whether it be their health (over 130 total games missed due to injury), their inept skill, lack of athleticism, or attitudes, someone always has a negative connotation about them. But in reality, they made the right plays 80 percent of the time last season when on the floor, being one of the most unselfish teams league-wide.
Yes, a franchise connected with Kobe Bryant actually gained the reputation of being unselfish.
Next to using the screen roll to get defenses off-balanced and cause hectic rotations, D’Antoni also installed a rather fundamental aspect of the game: Backdoor cuts.
He didn’t just stress the typical version of the backdoor cut, but instead quick ones in transition. And, they were usually generated on the baseline.
Coming up the floor, the Lakers would have a wing sprint to one of the corners. As the point guards became the top priority for their driving-and-kicking, the opposing small forward (or shooting guard) would keep a close eye on the floor general with the ball. This would allow Wesley Johnson and Jodie Meeks to utilize the subtle backdoor cuts from the baseline, getting to the rim without a struggle:
Granted, Paul Pierce was 36 years old and only dreams of being as athletic as Johnson, but the backdoor cuts worked against most defenses throughout the league. It really was a clever strategy for D’Antoni, considering everyone already placed an identity on the team.
When your offense becomes known as predictable, going away from the norm will create easy scores against any defense out there. If you’re known to be a team that lives and dies by taking 25 outside shots a night, camping your shooters in corners and the wings, guys may stand a bit flat-footed on defense. They won’t expect the cuts as much. It turns your offense into an unpredictable mode, hence why they were able to score 103 points per game without their best scorer in history.
It worked against everyone. But, perhaps it details just how lazy defenses are turning into these days. Especially with Josh Smith, who fools us into believing he cares about both ends:
Take note at the quick burst of speed Johnson gives when he begins the baseline cut, and the perfect pass that has to be made in those scenarios. Blake delivers it a bit high, but it only displays the demented jumping ability of Johnson to finish the play.
To see just how shameful Josh Smith could be last season, burning him on backdoor cuts wasn’t a rare occurrence:
No team in the Western Conference ruined more eyes on television than the Lakers, allowing 120+ points on 18 different occasions. Comical though, as they were on dock for 28 nationally televised games, giving viewers a dose of scoring. Most of the time, though, it was them getting torched and not being able to stop the bleeding. Jack Nicholson could have rose out of his chair and broke Kobe’s scoring record against the Lakers.
It didn’t make much sense, on the surface. They were full of young, athletic bodies that should’ve been able to stay in front of guards. Getting scored on is one thing, but not having the discipline to stay in front of your assignment is another. At the very least, they could’ve at least looked enthused on defense.
Johnson, majority of the time, became the best defender for Los Angeles. From the beloved chase-down blocks in transition, to using his long arms and strides to disrupt penetration, Johnson was the only reason the defense became exciting at times. That’s really where he should learn to take pride and focus on, since this Byron Scott-led team will once again need help in that regard.
Being 6’7″ and 215 pounds, Johnson was expected to do a fair job at defending the top small forwards in the game, such as LeBron James & Kevin Durant. Those were unrealistic expectations though, since you could only put three or four guys on those talents and expect decent results. Johnson looked bad on that end because he isn’t included in that group. Tony Allen and Jimmy Butler headline the class.
But against competition closer to his skill level, he appeared adequate, or sometimes superb. Stepping into passing lanes and making guards more cautious is what he excelled at the most:
Throwing cross-court passes is never an ideal method, especially if you’re fading to a corner. Point proven, that Utah deserved to be last in the West. But, Johnson’s anticipating was noteworthy, beginning his takeoff from the restricted area and knocking the ball loose before it reached Diante Garrett.
With Johnson’s speed to run the floor and get these types of steals, Los Angeles will still have plenty of fastbreaks next season, even with Bryant returning to the team.
There’s also something to be said about Johnson’s ability to recover on defense after a mistake. It turns into a gift, using his god-given talents of length and hops. Notice how he misreads the perimeter game of Wilson Chandler, running him off the 3-point line:
As Chandler puts the ball on the floor for a one-dribble 14-footer, Johnson’s lateral rapidity and length give him the chance to recover for the deflection. It’s impressive, and the central goal of next season should be to use his body to his advantage more and more.
Learning how to stay in front of guys, who the right ones are to heavily contest on the perimeter, and what type of shots to expect from certain players are all characteristics a well-known defender needs to have. When they say the game is more mental than physical, there’s more truth to those words than we want to believe.
There’s two options Byron Scott can have for Wesley Johnson in his first season as head coach.
He can place him in the starting lineup with Jeremy Lin (or Nash), Bryant, Carlos Boozer, and Jordan Hill. That situation would bring Nick Young off the bench — the role he’s actually fond of — to play alongside Xavier Henry. It’s looking as if it’s the more popular option right now.
Or, he can use Johnson’s skills and energy off the bench, giving Bryant another scoring weapon with Young beside him in the starting lineup. The only issue with that: How long will it take for Young to become decapitated?
Johnson is entering his fifth season, but is much older (27) than the other 2010 draft members. If there’s a time to put a muzzle on critics and showcase the type of player and personality you want attached to your resume … it’s now.
The one-year contract indicates this Johnson’s try-out for the free agency market in 2015. We’re aware of what happens when guys are fighting for a new deal, and more money. Let the season begin.