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Keon Johnson Was The Prize In The Maligned Clippers Trade

The young guard is showing promise with extended playing time.

Houston Rockets v Portland Trail Blazers Photo by Soobum Im/Getty Images

The Portland Trail Blazers have been the butt of many a joke since sending Norman Powell and Robert Covington to the Los Angeles Clippers at the deadline.

The February 4 deal set up the southern California squad for a playoffs run thanks to the addition of the two key rotation pieces. By contrast, the Blazers’ haul of Eric Bledsoe, Justise Winslow, Keon Johnson and a second round pick has been seen by many as incredibly underwhelming.

Bledsoe hasn’t played and is likely elsewhere next season, Winslow has been a serviceable rotation player while Keon Johnson is the rawest of first round picks the club has put on the court in a few years.

So there’s no surprising that along with the fans, several national pundits claimed the deal as an out and out win for the Clippers who may find themselves in real contention if they manage to get healthy and through next week’s play-in tournament.

The pain wasn’t assuaged for Portland fans when watching Covington drop 43 points against the reigning champion Milwaukee Bucks last week. Powell has also returned from injury in time for the Clippers' playoff push, which will hopefully include a repaired Kawhi Leonard.

Los Angeles gets to contend while the Blazers get middling assets, a minor trade exception and flexibility.

Great for Steve Ballmer, Lawrence Frank and Ty Lue but what about Portland? For many, the main issue was the fact that the Blazers didn’t secure at least one first round pick in the deal.

Well, the Clippers didn’t have a first round pick to offer for half a decade following their deal with the Oklahoma City Thunder to get Paul George across three years ago.

What’s harder to understand for the more layman fan was how the Blazers’ bloated cap sheet severely stymied Interim General Manager Joe Cronin’s options to improve the team, no thanks to his unscrupulous predecessor Neil Olshey.

The only way to undo Olshey's work was to compromise on a few things, in this case, parting with assets so that he could wrest control of spending. Because ultimately, there can’t have been too many teams open to helping the Blazers cut their payroll while also offering game-changing assets

Primarily, the Clippers deal enabled the Blazers to get under the luxury tax, along with the CJ McCollum trade with the New Orleans Pelicans.

Johnson

Johnson, whom the Clippers traded up to take at pick 21 from the New York Knicks in 2021, was clearly someone Los Angeles had their eye on thanks to his supreme athletic prowess and raw ability.

Some might argue he Johnson was, in essence, a first round pick in the deal. But it’s widely accepted that first round picks, like brand new cars, lose value as soon as they’re selected (or driven off the lot).

Unfortunately for the recently turned 20-year-old, the contending Clippers didn’t have the time and situation to to properly develop him, with the guard playing a paltry 15 NBA games before the deal was done.

Portland, with no real ambition to win after Damian Lillard was declared fit for surgery back in January, had the capacity to take a chance. And while it has taken some time for Johnson to get used to the flow of the game, the past three weeks have given us a sneak peak at what we might come to expect from the former Tennessee product.

Over the past eight games, Johnson has averaged 14 points on an impressive 40 percent three-point shooting, along with 2.8 rebounds, 4 assists and 1.1 steals in 30.3 minutes.

He’s as fast they come with impeccable instincts, potentially filling that bench point-of-attack defender role the Blazers have been aching for.

His athletic prowess has been jaw dropping. He registered a record 48-inch running vertical leap at last year’s draft combine and it certainly translates on the court, able to work around screens and keep his opponents in front.

Offensively, I wasn’t as sure of it when he arrived but his ability to find his spots comes naturally.

Johnson can also handle the ball, sharing the facilitating load with Brandon Williams and Kris Dunn in recent weeks.

Is Johnson a Blazer next year?

That’s the question. The Blazers appear to be in win-now mode from October and Johnson’s recent production may have considerably increased his trade value for team’s still in the re-building phase.

If the Blazers want him, Johnson can be theirs until 2026, at minimum, due to his rookie-scale contract.

On the other hand, Cronin has gathered assets to be a player in the upcoming trade market. With one, possibly two, lottery picks, trade exceptions, he also has a group of young players with room to improve.

Players like Johnson and Trendon Watford combined with a pick or two might be enough to bring in a player of real consequence despite being on an extremely team-friendly rookie-scale deal. So it’ll be intriguing to see if he’s part of the long-term plan

Conclusion

Honestly, it could be years before Johnson reaches his peak. The sophomore Johnson is unlikely to contribute too much to a Portland Trail Blazers team trying to bounce back up the standings and mix it with the Western Conference elite in 2022-23.

However, the invaluable experience he’s gained over the past two months may have fast-tracked the learning curve, potentially leading to spot minutes when required for the better equipped 2022-23 Blazers or an attractive piece in a difference-making trade.

For all intents and purposes, Johnson appears to be the closest thing to a first round pick the Blazers could have yielded in that deal, which also cut salary and set the team up for the financial flexibility they’re in line to have this summer.