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James Johnson should be Cleveland’s top target this off season

Issac Baldizon | Getty Images

Just a week after the 2016 NBA Champions relinquished their title to the Golden State Warriors, Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert packaged a raised offer to renew David Griffin’s tenure with Cleveland which can make him one of the wealthiest general managers today. As of Monday evening, we now know this will not be the case going forward.

After falling short in five games, many believed Griffin’s place in the front office is invaluable – and they were not wrong. Griffin’s understanding of talent and mastery of acquiring subtle players for substantial roles were essential for a Cleveland edge in the anticipated part IV of Cavs-Warriors in 2018. It’s easy to overreact to the five-game stand. However, while issues like preventing Kevin Durant from hitting contested triples aren’t obvious, identifying ways to get better are.

This past season, despite Griffin masterfully lowering deficits (Kyle Korver a.k.a White Thunder) and finding veteran minimum steals (The D-Willies), the Cavs still lost leverage. Now on a tight payroll, the Cavs next GM must make enough cuts to find significant yet cost-effective solutions for the problematic theme they faced against Golden State and really all season: versatility.

The Cavaliers’ distribution of talent is too thick and thin, with a top-heavy starting lineup that accounted for 84% of their Finals scoring and a bench of gifted yet limited specialists. Unfortunately, this has always been their situation, and while it carried Cleveland through last year’s historic 3-1 comeback, the same ceiling couldn’t match what Golden State reached with Durant.

Durant did drop over 30 ppg and hit countless clutch shots in the Finals, but Golden State demonstrated too much versatility as a team. Cleveland simply doesn’t have a 6’7″ backup Point Guard with a 6’11” wingspan like Shaun Livingston, or pass-first Power Forwards like Draymond Green and David West. In addition to balancing their talent, the Warriors did a tremendous job knocking the Cavaliers’ talent off balance.

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Many of Cleveland’s key role players throughout the season found themselves diminished in the Finals; namely Tristan Thompson, Kyle Korver, Deron Williams, Channing Frye, and at times, JR Smith. While pieces like Iman Shumpert and Richard Jefferson had solid minutes, the Warriors effectively reduced Cleveland’s capacity to compete by exploiting their best offensive players on defense and frustrating the Cavs on offense when they went too defensive.

Coach Tyronn Lue gambled on his offensive role players more often, as showcased by the minutes of Korver versus Shumpert for example – revealing the poison he picked to prioritize shooting while surrendering 121.6 ppg. Clearly, defense was his compromise. Cleveland’s move this off season must provide Lue with a versatile, offensive bench player who doesn’t compromise on defense.

Between reestablishing a defensive identity and developing a reliable bench, Cleveland must face choices this summer that require a balance between bolstering and budget. Specifically, a Forward off the bench that can defend 1-4 (1-5 when teams go small), play around ball-dominant starters and run offensive sets with reserves. With this and all other free agents in mind, Cavs should make room for Miami Forward, James Johnson.

Johnson finished his eighth season in the NBA with 12.8 points, 4.9 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 1.1 blocks, 1.0 steals and 1.1 triples on 47.9% shooting – all career highs on 27.4 minutes a game. Alongside Goran Dragic, he was the main catalyst to the Heat’s exciting push for the playoffs. The veteran is a contender for sixth man of the year – and for those who play fantasy basketball, he might’ve been the waiver wire pickup of the year as well. Driving, passing, shooting, defense – you name it. This guy is versatile.

Call him a more polished Derrick Williams, but James Johnson plays a lot like a beta LeBron James. On the ball, his power drive is difficult to contain and contest. Combined with his vision, the play-making he brings is an underrated talent that Justise Winslow is aggressively recruiting back to South Beach this summer. Off the ball, he stretches the court but also comes off screens with continuity, visualizing the right next play to make for himself and teammates. On top of all of this, Johnson has always been “the guy” who guards the other team’s best player.

Even with the lack of bench scoring, Cleveland’s chances during the Finals could’ve been less grim if they defended up to the challenge of the Warriors, or even if they defended at average. In fact, no team since the 2000-2001 Los Angeles Lakers won a title with a defensive rating outside of the top 10 in the league, a rank the Cavaliers finished 21st in. Johnson hails from the top-five defensive rated Miami Heat last season, far and away more disciplined along with the help of athletic wings and their anchor, Hassan Whiteside.

Outside of versatility, Johnson can bring a renewed sense of discipline and hustle to Cleveland’s defense. One of Cleveland’ biggest weaknesses, and a common point mentioned throughout the Finals, is defense in transition – an area where the Warriors lead the league in scoring.

Johnson found pivotal minutes in Miami this season, especially with Winslow’s season ending injury in January. In that stretch, he made a significant impact on the Heat’s defense in transition. In fact, whenever opponents stole the ball from the Heat, they shot 9.0% worse in transition while Johnson was on court hustling back as opposed to off court, per NBAwowy.com. However, Johnson does more than offer solutions for defense and bench scoring; he gives Cleveland something even Golden State doesn’t have.

One of the darkest realities that was oversimplified with “four All Stars” last year when Durant made his free agency was just how specifically scary the Warriors offense can be. An already perfected system built to find shots for three of the top five shooters in the World just landed the arguably most difficult isolation scorer to defend. In addition to their death lineup with Green at Center, the Warriors ran an unstoppable serving of Curry-Durant pick and roll. The margin for Forwards to keep up with Guards was even smaller from the 73-9 season, and this time the Cavs Guards had no chance on Durant compared to Harrison Barnes the season before.

Imagine the possibilities of James Johnson. The Cavaliers would be bringing in another ball-handler to raise their offensive potential, with James-Johnson, Williams-Johnson, Irving-Johnson pick-and-roll sets much like the Warriors torched them with. The Warriors had three ball handlers (Curry, Durant, Green) like the Cavs (Irving, James, Williams), thus Johnson would be a fourth ball-handler worthy of attention and perhaps the biggest bang on both ends of the court for Cleveland for the smallest buck.

Speaking of money, the Cavs do not have much of it. Heading into this free agency, Cleveland currently has no more than $3 million to work with even after accounting for the cap rise from the new CBA. Of course, this number is temporary and Cleveland has liquidable assets. James Jones plans to retire, Jefferson is considering it, Korver’s future is up in the air, and Shumpert and Frye’s lucrative contracts can create more than enough room. In addition, the Cavs can deal assets such as Kay Felder and Cedi Osman for cap room. Not all of these things need to happen, but they’re possibilities that Cavs can make happen in a much more likely fashion than a Kevin Love-Paul George trade.

Johnson made $4 million last year and after his career season last year he expects a respectable raise. Johnson has said he’s willing to remain loyal to Miami even at a discounted salary. However, Johnson is an unrestricted free agent, meaning Cleveland can lower the offer to meet payroll and still not give Miami a chance to match. If you’re going to take a discount, why not take it to contend for a championship?

James Johnson isn’t the star-level free agency prize like Paul George and Jimmy Butler Cavs fans are latching onto, but he certainly bolsters Cleveland’s chances at redemption on a budget. Some may be reminded by the times he guarded James in a number Eastern Conference series against the Bulls and Raptors. While those instances of defending James weren’t successful (like anybody’s attempts are), he is defensively capable with underrated, offensive upside. Although, it’s pretty funny to consider Johnson for Cleveland after what James did to him years ago…

However, if the Cavs can swing Johnson to Cleveland, hopefully we’ll see some of this in Wine and Gold…

But seriously, other than James for Cavaliers and Durant for the Warriors, you can’t name another player who can split a screen and finish like that. Let’s give Cleveland a second guy who can, because unlike Golden State we don’t need to buy another All Star to win.

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