After the Mavericks first round exit against the Los Angeles Clippers, it was clear what the team’s offseason priorities were. While Dallas was arguably a Kristaps Porzingis suspension and injury away from upsetting the Clippers, the team lacked the requisite grit-and-grind mentality needed to defeat a deep, experienced and tested team.
By flipping Delon Wright and Justin Jackson in a three-team deal, the Mavericks shrewdly filled that hole by acquiring journeyman James Johnson.
Johnson’s background is well documented. He’s a hard-nosed, versatile player who just so happens to have a black belt in mixed martial arts and has yet to lose a match.
It’s clear the Mavericks valued his rugged demeanor, but Johnson knows he’s more than that.
“I know why they brought me here, and I feel like it was more than the toughness and black belt,” Johnson told the media. “But I’m able to play whatever role that’s thrown my way.”
When Johnson was pressed about his well-rounded game, he was quick to mention that he wouldn’t need to do too much. He pointed out Luka Doncic’s ability to dissect defenses out of the pick-and-roll and Porzingis’s penchant to stretch the floor, so he kept it simple on what he’d bring to the table this season.
“My job is coming in here doing what’s asked of me, being a vet, being an older player and just working hard,” Johnson explained.
The Mavericks are undergoing a remarkable — if not surprising — leap from missing the playoffs just two seasons ago, to now being a significant threat in the Western Conference. Spearheaded by All-NBA, MVP favorite Doncic, the Mavericks are still a relatively inexperienced bunch. As one of just three players over the age of 30, Johnson knows he has a unique voice in the locker room, but it’s not because of his age.
“I don’t think age brings leadership at all,” Johnson said. “What my years and experience in the league brings is different defensive sets and different offensive sets. Everybody damn near runs the same thing, they just call it something different. As long as you learn the terminology and you don’t have to think before you can react, I think that’s what it is.”
Given the unique circumstances of the condensed season and even shorter offseason, Johnson’s experience could yield fruitful results for a team integrating several young, fresh faces from the draft and free agency.
“I can explain to the young guys, like take your booklets home, man,” Johnson stressed. “That’s something I never did as a rookie or second year player is take my booklet home to read early plays or read the defensive schemes. Just the important little things I learned along the way that has nothing to do with basketball.”
On the court, Johnson is a swiss-army knife of sorts. He can guard multiple positions, knock down shots from behind the arc and distribute the ball well for his size. While he can wear many hats, the Mavericks know that his primary role is one Dallas hasn’t had since the DeShawn Stevenson days. And Johnson knows his tough mentality doesn’t grow on trees.
“That’s not something you can teach,” he told the media. “That’s not something you can be coached on or anything like that. That’s something that you’ve got to develop within yourself.”
“One thing about this team though, I didn’t see no backing down,” Johnson explained. “When I was watching games I didn’t see no backing down from any of them at all, and that’s what you need. I can work with that. You can have heart, and that’s all you need.”
While the theme of the offseason was to find an enforcer for Doncic, Johnson was quick to point out that the 21-year-old superstar had it all under control.
“I don’t think they needed an enforcer like me to come in and enforce stuff,” he said. “Luka takes care of himself, and that’s one of the reasons I respect him. More than his game, he’s able to stand up and fight for himself if needed.”
The Mavericks are in win-now mode, led by Doncic and co-piloted by Porzingis. Even though they’d like to add a “third star”, filling the team with players who know their role serves tremendous value. By all accounts, Johnson knows who he is for this team.
“Who I know I will be for this team is a hard worker and someone who is going to give it up and grind every night for sure.”