DETROIT — Adjusting to a new offensive role has been a challenge for James Johnson.
“I’m buying in,” Johnson said. “That’s the only way I can describe it. I’m buying in to what our offense needs and to what coach Spo wants out of me. I think that’s the hardest thing in the NBA is accepting your role and try to be the best at it.”
What’s been the most difficult thing for Johnson to get used to this season? Spending more offensive possessions playing off the ball.
“It’s less tough when I’m running the one and making plays, and still looking for myself,” Johnson said of finding the fine line between being aggressive while still fitting into his new role. “But as a four man, where you might not touch the ball for three or four possessions and you’re playing defense and then you finally touch it, it’s not your turn to shoot. That’s your time to get us into the second situation or try to move from the strong side to the weak side, weak side to strong side.”
But Johnson didn’t look to pass as much in Saturday’s loss to the Pistons. Instead, he played more of the point-forward role and it seemed to open his offensive game.
Johnson finished with 18 points on 7-of-12 shooting from the field and 3-of-6 shooting from 3-point range to go with five rebounds and seven assists, and even flashed the aggressiveness that made him so effective last season when he threw down a vicious dunk over Pistons center Andre Drummond.
Was it a coincidence that this performance came in his first game off the bench after a string of 11 consecutive starts? Johnson said he’s comfortable in every lineup, but credited an honest discussion with Heat teammates and coaches for his one-game resurgence.
“Just was having bad games previous games. Nobody to blame but myself,” said Johnson, with the Heat set to start a three-game homestand on Monday against the Magic. “But there’s a point in time that you have to look yourself in the mirror and no matter second group, first group, I was playing terrible. I just came with a different energy. My team approached me, coaches approached me. It’s all about responding. It’s how you can respond, how you can bounce back.”
But for the most part, Johnson hasn’t looked like the aggressive dynamic offensive weapon who earned a a four-year, $60 million free-agent contract from the Heat last season. He’s averaging 10.2 points on 8.4 shot attempts and 47.6 percent shooting, 5.0 rebounds and 4.0 assists this season.
On the surface, those numbers seem solid. But dig deeper and you’ll find the reason it looks like Johnson isn’t being as aggressive as last season with the ball in his hands.
During the Heat’s 30-11 run over the second half of last season, Johnson averaged 13.9 points on 11.3 shot attempts and 46.8 percent shooting, 5.0 rebounds and 4.3 assists.
Along with taking three fewer shot attempts this season, the 30-year-old’s usage rate is down from 22.6 percent over that 41-game span last season to 19.4 percent this season. And the amount of touches he’s getting reflects that, as that number has gone down from 62.8 over the second half of last season to 54.7 this season.
An even more telling statistic? Johnson led Miami in plus-minus during their 30-11 run last season at plus-215, but the Heat have been outscored by 19 points with him on the court this season.
“I’m encouraging him, ‘JJ you need to be yourself because if you’re passive we cannot get nothing,'” Heat point guard Goran Dragic said.
“Especially every time I played pick-and-rolls with Cleveland last game, they were blitzing I kind of gave him the ball and he was making the plays. [Against Philadelphia] they were switching. Usually in that kind of position, he can roll or hit him on the low pocket pass. But he’s looking to pass. Sometimes he needs to be aggressive. When he’s aggressive then the defense is going to be inside the paint more and then he can make plays. I think he’s going to be fine. The season is so long. It’s a lot of ups and downs. Right now he’s not confident, his confidence is down maybe. But we’re going to get him back.”
When Heat coach Erik Spoelstra was asked if Johnson’s role had changed from last season, he downplayed the topic.
“Not dramatically,” Spoelstra answered. “Hey, we have a better team than last year. Guys have to evolve. We were playing with seven or eight guys a lot of times last year, so everybody had more opportunities. Welcome to having a better team. This is what we want and you have to adjust and you have to evolve and JJ has shown the ability to do that. Guys will continue to get more comfortable and more efficient offensively.”
Spoelstra admitted that Johnson could be more aggressive “in the context” of the Heat’s offense, but said: “He doesn’t have to overthink it. We’re not going to reinvent a bunch of things for him. We know and he knows what his strengths are and how he helps us offensively. He just has to be more consistent and detailed with it. Detail is a big thing.”
Would going back to the bench and playing the facilitator role with the Heat’s reserves solve Johnson’s issue? He’s played 23 games off the bench and 22 games in the starting lineup this season.
“Um, who knows,” Johnson said. “[Justise Winslow] is really running that second unit very well, very well. I don’t want to take nothing from him either or take nothing from what that unit is doing. That unit was moving the ball, playing with each other, playing well off it, off the ball and you see what we’re capable of doing when the ball is moving and multiple guys are touching it, us getting to the second side, sometimes the third side. That’s making defenses work and I don’t think me going to the second unit would help what the second unit is already doing.”
So the question remains, will Johnson find his place and flourish in the Heat’s current offense?
“It’s a challenge that I want for myself,” Johnson said. “I think once I figure it out and break through, it’s just going to make it a lot easier for everybody.”