To put it lightly, Miami Heat fans have not been overly happy with James Johnson’s performance this season. The only thing that JJ is really doing worse than last year is scoring, and he’s only down about three points (2.8 to be exact). He’s actually improved in a lot of areas statistically.
But it’s not all hunky dory, through a basic eye test you can tell there are some problems. JJ’s clock management has been atrocious for one, but I’m here to argue that most of these deficiencies are caused by his new role.
On the Heat, you’re never going to have a clear role. Erik Spoelstra has made it clear in his coaching tenure with the Heat, that he will play you to your strengths when it suits the team. That means some nights you’ll start, play 46 minutes and score 31 points and others you’ll play 22 minutes and score 3 points. It’s a system that would frustrate a lot of players with big egos, but it’s normalcy in the Heat culture.
At this time last season, Johnson had been moved into the starting lineup and tasked with much of the scoring load. The Heat were on a mission to simply make the playoffs and Johnson was doing what was asked of him. This season, Johnson doesn’t have to go out and be a scorer. He’s a Swiss army knife of a player, and can play a complimentary role which is perfect for the Heat. For those who think Johnson is underperforming, they also forget that Justise Winslow, Josh Richardson and Dion Waiters were hurt for much of last season. Now Justise is surging, Wade is shouldering Dion’s load and Josh is arguably Miami’s most well rounded player. There are many mouths to feed and Johnson seems to get that.
A limited role is hard to embrace, especially after signing a contract worth $60 million dollars. Johnson seems to have found some stability at least. Over the month of March Johnson has averaged 11.6 points, 4.8 rebounds and about 5 rebounds a game -- all while shooting 58% from the field. While those numbers might not be worth $60 mil, nobody else seems to be hustling or playing at the energy level that James is. In the last week alone, I must have seen him dive for loose balls 10 times. You can’t measure that in the box score.
If we look at his 31-point burst a few things are clear.
Johnson is taking better shots and looking for his teammates. Where Johnson used to spin out of control on a lot of attempts, he’s taking better looks now. In this game he shot 76% from the field!
His playmaking is also improving at the same time. Where Johnson used to chuck a three, now he’ll make the extra pass (like the one to Olynyk). Since he stopped forcing things, he’s become a better point forward as well. We all know he’s more than capable of handling the ball, but the way he dishes it off as the defense sets, allows him to get open for threes or cut to the hoop.
Johnson had looked slow this season, a result of his injury in December. The good news is that seems to have healed. JJ looks quick, his first step is as good as ever and he’s easily beating players to the hoop.
I’m optimistic about James Johnson, he was my favorite player on the Heat to watch last season and it seems he’s putting it together for the postseason. To advance in the playoffs, you need a gritty player like JJ. Luckily for the Heat, Johnson seems to have embraced his niche.