I think Blazers fans are probably right to be a little upset about the deal they reached yesterday with the Clippers which saw them acquire Keon Johnson, Eric Bledsoe and Justise Winslow for Norman Powell and Robert Covington. A lot of that decision, as our Jason Quick cleverly explained today, had to do with the financial ramifications. The Blazers moved Powell’s $75 million guaranteed salary over the next four years to acquire players with just over $10 million guaranteed after this season. Moving Powell is clearing the books for a team that still doesn’t exactly have a clean cover sheet going forward, given the expenses that will likely have to go to Anfernee Simons this summer. Simons’ emergence also really paved the way for the team to move Powell. Still, I expected more value.
But I just want to note that I would bet that Portland front office really appreciates the Keon Johnson acquisition. While I’m not particularly proud of him after what we’ve seen over the past two seasons in Tennessee and the G League, he ticks a lot of the boxes that this front office is looking for when selecting players in the draft. The team notoriously recruits youngsters because, essentially, they don’t believe that youngsters are going to step in and immediately contribute to winning teams. Johnson, indeed, is far from ready to contribute significantly. He’s 6-foot-5 and has all kinds of athletically elite physical tools. Truly, Johnson is in the top five percent of the NBA‘s league-wide athletes in terms of explosiveness — first step, jumping ability, whatever. But he’s still really working on his overall feel for the game and the skill level. He’s turning it around a lot right now and isn’t a regular shooter.
That said, he plays very strong and fits perfectly into the history of the team’s last draft. Look back and you’ll see that in 2017 the team took on Zach Collins and Caleb Swanigan, who were both teenagers in their previous college seasons (and Collins was pretty raw with a lot of extra tools). In 2018, the team took on Anfernee Simons and Gary Trent, both teenagers who had real issues but also real physical gifts (elite athleticism in Simons’ case, shooting and physical frame in Trent’s case). In 2019, the team selected Nassir Little, another teenager with plenty of physical tools who struggled in his only college season at North Carolina. In 2021, the team picked Greg Brown, another teenager with elite athleticism who wrestled in Texas.
It’s hard to overemphasize how much Johnson fits into this scrappy story. He’s exactly the kind of player the Blazers have enjoyed before. And while I don’t usually agree with that kind of strategy as an evaluator and draft strategist, there’s no denying that the team has a guy they picked under that front office, whose bones are still in place despite the departure of Neil Olshey.
I’m just saying all of this to say: I wouldn’t sleep on the Johnson piece of this trade, if I was a Portland fan. I’d bet the team saw a chance to not only cut the cash with this deal, but also acquire a player they probably rated highly last year in the draft.