It’s easy to talk about what Tyler Johnson isn’t — namely, a traditional point guard.
Standing at 6-4 with a 6-6 wingspan, Johnson isn’t the type of defensive presence or drive-and-kick creator we typically associate with that position. He isn’t quite the 3-and-D maven we all imagined filling the starting spot opposite Devin Booker when the Suns traded Eric Bledsoe two seasons ago. At 27, he isn’t quite as young as the rest of the Suns’ core. His $19 million price tag is more than you’d like to pay him.
However, a healthy Johnson — with a full summer preparing to play with this core — is more than capable of filling the Suns’ hole at guard. At the very least, he’s comparable to the Suns’ other rumored veteran point guard targets. Unless Phoenix truly makes power moves this summer by reaching for the stratosphere at the second guard spot opposite Booker, there’s no reason Johnson can’t get the job done.
The simple problem of roster math
The Suns exited draft night with six guards on their roster, from Booker to rookies Ty Jerome and Jalen Lecque. Already on the fringes of the Suns’ long-term plans, De’Anthony Melton and Elie Okobo had to be feeling squeezed. Simply by way of being the more recent investments by the organization, Jerome and Lecque figure to be higher priorities for playing time and a roster spot than Melton or Okobo.
Booker will play somewhere between 30 and 36 minutes per night as the Suns’ lead playmaker and top scoring option. This creates an obvious math problem -- there are only about 60 more minutes available at that spot. Phoenix will also likely want to play Cam Johnson at the 2 occasionally, and Mikal Bridges frequently slotted in as a guard defensively last season.
Whether it’s Johnson or Cory Joseph or anyone else on the free agent market, the depth of young talent at guard makes it unlikely that anyone coming into this situation will play a huge role.
Of course, signing a big name like D’Angelo Russell or Malcolm Brogdon would require further clearing of salary. That could mean waiving and stretching Johnson or attaching a young player to Josh Jackson’s salary in hopes of dumping the final year of his deal at $7 million. Either move would kill two birds with one stone, clearing cap space and playing time at once for those guards.
The Suns could also just trade Okobo or Melton straight-up to clear out space in the rotation for their new additions.
A smart bettor today would probably lean toward a cheaper veteran option landing in Phoenix, though, which brings us back to Johnson. His talent is duplicative with many of the players rumored to be heading toward Phoenix, and unlike some of the other players on this roster, Johnson was acquired by James Jones.
So what’s the difference?
Trading Ryan Anderson’s huge salary for Johnson after it became clear Anderson couldn’t play was a cunning move by Jones and co-interim general manager Trevor Bukstein. Johnson’s hot shooting and decision-making were keys to the Suns’ competitive stretch of play from late February to early March, in which the Suns won five of seven games. It was Johnson who hit the nail-in-the-coffin jumper late to clinch a road victory over the Warriors.
Johnson developed a better back-and-forth chemistry with Booker than anyone since Bledsoe. The two connected for a half-dozen assists every night. Johnson’s gravity from the corner after initiating a set helped realize the power of Igor Kokoskov’s offense as well as Booker’s playmaking -- when the fourth-year guard actually got to play next to another capable perimeter player.
Booker was more efficient when Johnson the floor. According to NBA Player Impact stats, Booker shot 46 percent from the field and 38 percent from three in 332 minutes on the court with Johnson. The threat of Johnson driving to the basket opened up the floor for everyone.
The bread and butter of Johnson’s offensive game is skipping past a screen to lose his defender with a crossover or hesitation dribble, getting them on his hip, and finishing in the paint with a floater or layup. He’s not an explosive athlete, but he can make shots through contact and gets to the line at a solid clip considering his low usage rate. His touch is elite.
It’s fair to assume Johnson’s three-point shooting will bounce back. He shot just 32 percent from deep as a Sun but is a career 36 percent bomber overall, and 37 percent from the corner. Maybe someone with better size and athleticism would be preferable alongside Booker, but the value of sticking with Johnson this season is that his expiring contract allows the Suns to move on to one of the younger guys in the future.
The big hole in Johnson’s game is defense. This is where free agents like Brogdon, Joseph or Patrick Beverley appeal. The Suns’ 29th-ranked defense was worse when Johnson played, despite his savvy as a team defender relative to someone like Okobo or Troy Daniels.
Johnson simply has not shown the ability to defend the pick-and-roll at a high level, despite his plus wingspan. The Suns asked him typically to go over screens while Deandre Ayton hung back in drop coverage, and he couldn’t stay attached to the ball-handler often enough. This put Ayton at disadvantage consistently, challenging the rookie big man more than was necessary as he learned NBA defense.
Dylan Murphy writes in The Basketball Dictionary, “pick-and-roll coverage has one purpose: avoid a switch. Although increased versatility and the emergence of more like-size players have turned the switch into a viable defensive option, the majority of NBA players are still only capable of guarding two positions at best.” It seems obvious, but the Suns didn’t have a lot of guys who could even defend their own position last season.
As the Suns try to build a capable defense in front of Ayton, especially after a draft that focused on shooting and offensive acumen, it is vital they target players who can physically handle the demands of elite defense. It’s likely the team will keep Ayton in drop coverage this season, with perhaps more switching mixed in as he gets comfortable on the perimeter. There are many better options to defend the point of attack than Johnson, and his lack of functional athleticism or strength mean he’s probably not someone you want switched onto a big man, either.
Joseph in this clip executes the “over” coverage in the pick-and-roll perfectly, stifling the Jameer Nelson-Anthony Davis pick-and-pop.
The Suns’ bench features a dynamic team defender in Melton who could supplement the starting point guard and form a defensive rotation at the 1 vastly better than anything the Suns have had in years. That opportunity is there whether Johnson stays or not, but if the Suns want to improve their defense and help Ayton in the pick-and-roll, Johnson may not be the right choice.
However, Phoenix should not be thinking necessarily about building a top-15 defense right away. Johnson is a perfectly capable option to man the ship while the young players grow. He lifts the floor of this team plenty high enough to make life easier on the core group.
Flexibility with an expiring contract
Keeping Johnson on the books into the season opens many trade avenues for the Suns. He will be one of the highest non-star expiring contracts in the NBA this upcoming season at $19 million. Should the Suns decide he is not part of their future, they could still use his salary in a trade at the deadline to acquire an expensive player who fits the roster better. Most appealingly, Phoenix could acquire a player locked in on a longer contract and provide another team with more immediate salary relief.
For example, the Suns were rumored to be interested in Aaron Gordon as a free agent before he quickly re-signed with Orlando last summer. Gordon and Johnson make nearly identical salary next season. The Magic may want to reinvest that money in their backcourt, meaning flipping Gordon for Johnson and getting a couple extra assets in return could appeal to Orlando.
Gordon fits as a secondary playmaker at the forward spot who is a nearly perfect fit as a rim protector and switch defender next to Ayton. His contract decreases every year and he is just 23.
Should things go south for Toronto, they will look to play with major cap space in the summer of 2020, with Marc Gasol, Kyle Lowry, Serge Ibaka, Fred VanVleet and potentially Kawhi Leonard coming off their books. Flipping Powell (and another small piece) for Johnson would open an additional $9 million for the Raptors as they rebuild their team.
Powell in this year’s playoffs looked like the type of player Toronto hoped for when they extended him, shooting 39 percent from three and showing some bounce attacking closeouts in big moments. He too is in the prime of his career at just 26.
Larry Nance Jr.
The Cavaliers are in the unfortunate position of being expensive and bad. Part of that is by design, as they absorbed the bad salary of Brandon Knight and John Henson before the trade deadline this year to acquire draft picks. Cleveland is building from the ground up, but could be looking at over $50 million in cap space if they move on from Nance and all their cap holds.
There’s no urgency to give up on Nance, whom they just extended at a reasonable salary, but if they decide Dylan Windler or Cedi Osman makes more sense at the 4 long-term, shedding Nance could help them refocus their frontcourt rotation around younger players.
Nance is just 26 and his athletic rim protection, pogo stick finishing, and short-roll playmaking are all unique skills that would be worth a look next to Ayton.
Not many of the veteran free agent point guards on the market represent a sizable upgrade on Johnson. The Suns are not ready to compete for the playoffs. Any veteran they sign is just a bridge to the long-term option anyway, so Johnson’s familiarity with these young players as well as the more immediate flexibility his expiring deal provides make him a more appealing option.