The Jazz have agreed to sign unrestricted free agent small forward Joe Johnson to a two-year contract worth $22 million, according to Yahoo Sports and NBA.com. Johnson, 35, averaged 12.2 PPG, 3.6 RPG and 3.9 RPG for the Nets and the Heat last season. The seven-time All-Star brings significant playoff experience and a reputation for big shot-making to a young Jazz team hoping to reach the playoffs for the first time since 2012.
Free agency just opened, but it’s already time to put Utah into the “Offseason Winners” category. Jazz GM Dennis Lindsey entered the summer with a strong young core and a few major needs: a capable starting point guard, an extra wing shooter, and whatever veteran experience he could muster. Thanks to Lindsey’s trade for George Hill and his signing of Johnson, all three of those missions have now been accomplished.
Johnson languished with the dead-end Nets last season, but his midseason move to the Heat showed that he still can still be an effective contributor in a complementary role. Last season, Utah found its initiators—Gordon Hayward, Rodney Hood and Alec Burks (when healthy)—struggling to work in cramped quarters and lacking in kick-out options. With the additions of Hill and now Johnson, the Jazz’s offense should be better spaced and more aesthetically pleasing overall. Jazz coach Quin Snyder suddenly has a ton of interesting lineup options: He could go ultra big and long with Hood, Hayward, Johnson, Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert, he could use Johnson as a small ball four alongside three playmakers against stretch teams, and he could load up on experience by playing both Hill and Johnson in late-game possession-by-possession scenarios.
Depth was a serious weakness for the injury-ravaged Jazz last season; look for Johnson to help turn that negative into a positive in 2016-17. As with the “Best 5 guys” lineups mentioned above, this signing gives Snyder a pretty impressive second-unit perimeter trio of Dante Exum, Burks and Johnson. That trio would give Utah good size and athleticism overall, promising on-ball defense from Exum, off-the-dribble explosiveness from Burks, and reliable spacing from Johnson. The days of praying for Trey Burke to do something positive and asking Joe Ingles to do more than is healthy should be over.
This deal’s terms help mitigate the biggest concerns around Johnson: that he’s 35, that his best days are far behind him, and that he’s moving from the East to the superior West. Utah is extending a reasonable per-year figure, it didn’t over-commit in terms of years, and it will ask Johnson to fit into a defined, auxiliary role rather than expect him to carry a heavy burden.
The rising Jazz have been steadily pushing towards the West’s playoff picture for the last two years under Snyder, falling short because of inexperience, injury issues and an imbalanced roster. Lindsey, ever deliberate, has addressed each of those issues in turn this summer and, as a result, a big breakthrough seems eminently possible.