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The Lakers' Struggles Are Not Wesley Johnson's Fault

Wesley Johnson is an effect, not the cause, of the Lakers's last two seasons of misery

Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

Wesley Johnson is not a good NBA player. He has never, and likely will never, live up to being the 4th overall pick in the 2010 NBA draft. I wrote about this in depth at the beginning of December. At the time he was on a bit of an upswing, but in more recent weeks he has struggled, even being honored as this week's Tank Commander.

As much as we like to jest about Johnson's frustrating mediocrity, it is not all his fault. He is not great, but as a role player using up 17.9 percent of the Lakers' possessions while he's been on the floor over the last 7 games (only slightly behind Jeremy Lin's 21.2 and Wayne Ellington's 21.4 over the same period), great things should not be expected from him.

Wes is who he is at this point, and it seems that the last person to see it is Kevin Ding of Bleacher Report. I am normally a fan of Ding's, but for him to point at Johnson as the reason for the Lakers' struggles to his many readers is irresponsible at best, and malicious at worst. I hate to be seen as "going at" or "taking down" another writer, but some of these points needed to be addressed. To begin:

This is the Wesley Johnson era.

Whether it's Mike D'Antoni or Byron Scott coaching, whichever part of Kobe Bryant's body isn't working right, the past two seasons have been marked by the Los Angeles Lakers having no choice but to invest in irrational hope that someone as soft as Johnson suddenly grows nails.

If the Lakers were investing their hopes, however "irrational" on Wesley Johnson making some huge turnaround from career norms, that seems more like an indictment of them than something that fans should be upset at Wes for. Additionally, the whole criticizing athletes as "soft" for the simple sin of not being more talented than their peers or lauding them as "tough" is getting a little old at this point, a relic of an outdated form of discourse.

Of course, that hasn't happened, which is why Johnson wasn't even in the Lakers' injury-depleted starting lineup as they played a forgettable Wednesday night game against the Milwaukee Bucks in front of only 12,544 fans.

Wesley Johnson was hurt earlier in this game. But I am sure you will not just reference this later and use it as a further opportunity to question his toughness.

In the first half, Johnson made a three-pointer but appeared to land on O.J. Mayo's foot, twisting Johnson's right foot. Johnson was unable to shake it off. He fouled to stop the game so he could leave-but not before he howled in pain loud enough to echo throughout the not-so-full arena.

Breaking news: spraining your ankle hurts. Even if later "He was able to put his weight on the foot", that does not mean that he should be questioned for how much it hurt in the moment. Everyone has different pain thresholds; just because Kobe is essentially the Terminator does not mean that every Lakers player should have their manhood questioned because they do not want to play on an injury and potentially make it worse.

So with what the club termed a "mild" sprain, Johnson played in the second half. Except he happened to get poked in the left eye.

Johnson went down like it was a bullet to the head.

I, like most, have been poked in the eye before. Not only does it hurt, but the natural reaction is to jerk your head back, with movement evocative of taking a bullet to the head. This seems like another thing that should not be a big deal, certainly not worth being called out for in front of, as of the time of this writing, around 20,000 readers.

So there Johnson was, Kobe's official representative in those new sneaks...showing just how soft the sole could be.

So because Johnson needed a minute to collect himself from being poked in the eye, otherwise known as the organ basketball players use to view what is going on on the court, he deserves being compared to as soft as a shoe's sole? I just do not agree with this line of thinking.

Bryant and the Lakers desperately needed Johnson to show more want-to than he did last season-when he squandered a golden opportunity: D'Antoni was trying to teach Johnson how to be the next Shawn Marion, who built what should be a Hall of Fame career as D'Antoni's versatile power forward.

Now you are just insulting Shawn Marion. Johnson not turning into "the next Shawn Marion" has nothing to do with Johnson not "showing enough want" and everything to do with Johnson not being as talented as the Matrix. Just look at their numbers per-36 minutes for the first 3 years of their careers (Johnson had played 3 years before he got to D'Antoni and the Lakers):



Marion averaged a higher field goal percentage on more attempts from the field, shot better from the free throw line in more attempts, averaged more points, rebounds, steals, blocks, and fewer turnovers. Wes shot better from the three-point line and fouled less. Shawn Marion he is not, and was never going to be despite his higher draft selection. If anyone in the Lakers front office thought he was Shawn Marion, they were delusional. That hoped for evolution not coming to fruition had nothing to do with Wes "squandering an opportunity".

Someone who worked with Johnson previously was insistent when the Lakers first signed him that it was a wasted venture: Johnson was unwilling to try to be more, and he never would be willing.

Sure enough, here he is in his second Lakers season, averaging the exact same 9.1 points as in his first Lakers season.

Johnson averaging the same amount of points per game under Byron Scott as under D'Antoni is actually kind of an achievement, considering how much better the latter was at utilizing his players' talents effectively.

Johnson simply doesn't want more. He's not a deadbeat; he did agree to work out with Bryant. He's not a bad guy.

He just talks about improving and then plays the same way he always has, squandering potential. He wants nothing but to sit in the back seat.

What potential is he squandering? I feel like in this instance "potential" is being used as a synonym for "athleticism", but just because Johnson can jump out of the gym does not mean he has tremendous potential on a basketball court. There is more to basketball skill than jumping ability, otherwise Shannon Brown would be a five-time MVP.

And that's the kind of thing that logically leads Lakers fans to embrace the backward tanking sentiment. After all, there's a vast difference between trying to sell yourself that Johnson will flip a switch just before turning 30 and dreaming that someone like Milwaukee's Giannis Antetokounmpo, 20, will reach his long arms out to future greatness.

So "tanking sentiment' is "backwards" because fans do not feel like selling themselves on believing in a miraculous turnaround for reclamation projects like Wes, and would rather hope for expected growth from a 20-year-old like Antetokounmpo?

Antetokounmpo scored a career-high 25 points against the Lakers on Wednesday. Milwaukee is a season-high five games over .500 now, and Lakers coach Byron Scott spoke with noticeable longing when he described the Bucks as "a lot of athletic young guys."

Wow! It is almost like getting a lot of lottery picks can lead you towards having a promising young team or something! If only there was a convenient name for the sentiment of wanting to acquire a bunch of those types of players!

Perhaps things will be different if the Lakers keep and use that top-five pick in the next draft. That, unlike what has been going on for two years with Johnson, would at least be a realistic visualization exercise.


As I said before, I have been a fan of Ding's basically since I started reading about the NBA. I have no idea why he decided to go after Wesley Johnson like this. It almost feels as though his strengths at building interesting narratives to sum up what is going on during a Lakers' season led him astray here in trying to make Johnson the main actor in this drama about the fall of the Lakers.

But ultimately we have to ask ourselves what is more disappointing here: Johnson playing at the level almost every rational observer expected, or a talented, award-winning writer like Ding writing a hit piece on him?

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