Lob City Questions: Can Wesley Johnson fill Matt Barnes’ role?


While his reach, size and strength often helped make up for his lack of foot speed, it was glaringly apparent that Wes probably would never become the defensive stopper some hoped he would be” – The Great Mambino

With DeAndre Jordan grabbing hold of all Clippers-related attention this summer, it’s easy to forget the franchise is without a starting small forward following Barnes’ being shipped off to the Charlotte Hornets alongside Spencer Hawes for Lance Stephenson — Barnes is now with the Memphis Grizzlies. Ideally Paul Pierce is the guy who steps into Barnes’ starting place. A player that should’ve been a Clipper last summer, Pierce gives the Clippers an offensive talent at small forward they haven’t beside Blake Griffin and Chris Paul ever — he can knock down shots from the perimeter, create on his own shots and use the low-block for post-ups. But in an attempt to balance out the roster, keeping Pierce on the bench to spread the plentiful fruit across 48 minutes, putting a low-usage body in between the team’s “Big 4” could be the best “smart” thing to do (think Harrison Barnes starting over Andre Iguodala).

That’s where the recently-signed Wesley Johnson comes in.

A former lottery pick five years ago — was drafted ahead of DeMarcus Cousins, Greg Monroe, Gordon Hayward, Paul George, Eric Bledsoe — a once promising wing talent has all but transformed into a full-time 3-and-D player, similar to what Matt Barnes provided the team in the last three seasons.

When asked to do very little, Johnson has shown to be effective on the offensive end. Last season, per NBA Stats, Johnson shot 45.6 percent from the field (38.2 percent from three) on shots that didn’t require him to put the ball on the floor. Matt Barnes? 44.1 percent from the field and 37.4 percent from three. On catch-and-shoot three-point attempts (2.6 per game), Johnson shot 38.7 percent. from the field. Barnes (4.5 per game), 37.2 percent.

Alongside the likes of Chris Paul, J.J. Redick, Blake Griffin, and DeAndre Jordan in the starting lineup, doing little will continue, but at a higher rate than Johnson was asked with the Lakers last season. For Barnes, shots that required him to not put the ball on the floor (or 0-dribble shots), they accounted for 74.9% of his field-goal attempts; as a Lakers, 0-dribble shots accounted for 58.9% of Johnson’s offense.

For those unfamiliar, those open looks are something like this:

Or this:

Now’s a question of whether Johnson can continue his role as an effective shooter. Dating back to his rookie season, Johnson has shot above 35 percent from three thrice, so there’s reason for optimism. Factoring in the amount of open looks he’d be welcomed to as the fifth option with the starters (and freedom to take open shots), the possibility of a percentage increase starts to creep in.

Defensively, Pierce may be the smarter defender, but he lacks the tools to keep up with today’s wings consistently — against fours he’s better suited as we saw in last years playoffs — but in an attempt to decrease wear and tear on the 10+ year vet, leaving Johnson to guard starters makes the most sense. Could you imagine Pierce having to guard a Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, or any other capable scorer in the playoffs? The idea of Johnson doing the same isn’t a pretty sight either, but it’s better than the former. If we allow Synergy Sports to tell the story, Johnson and Barnes were very in similar range as defenders last season — Barnes allowed opponents to score 1.04 PPP (points per possession) and shoot 44 percent from the field in isolation; Johnson allowed opponents to score 1.09 PPP and shoot 47.8 percent from the field in iso. Fortunately for both, isolation isn’t the only type of defense available, though Barnes’ defensive acumen exceeds Johnson’s. Here’s what the “TheGreatMambino” of SilverScreenandRoll had to say about Johnson’s work on that end of the floor in 2014:

"However, even without the mismatch against much larger players in the post, Johnson was remarkably slow laterally, often getting lost on screens and not being able to keep up with much more nimble small forwards on the perimeter. While his reach, size and strength often helped make up for his lack of foot speed, it was glaringly apparent that Wes probably would never become the defensive stopper some hoped he would be. He’s merely “okay” on that end of the floor. Nothing more, nothing less."

Johnson isn’t perfect (in fact, far from it) but it’s an idea that’d help things balance out for a Clippers team who’s — at the moment — stacked on the wings. With Johnson a starter, Pierce stands as a 20-25 minute player who can stay fresh for the playoff push (it’s why they brought him here) while helping keep things near an even keel while the starters are resting, an issue that plagued the team until their eventual downfall. How will Pierce, Austin Rivers, Lance Stephenson, and Paul Pierce all work together in the second unit, unless Rivers improves at staggering lineups to mix talents? That’s unclear, but it’s an improvement upon last years collective and frankly, that’ll work itself out as the year plays on, even if it means someone has to be traded.

At the end of the day, the decision of who starts at small forward will be in Doc Rivers‘ hand — and likely handed to the championship small forward, and if anyone is best suited to be the fifth fiddle to LA’s Redick-Jordan-Paul-Griffin foursome, Johnson is the team’s best option.

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