Johnson was a disappointment in Chicago, as his all-around gifts and athletic talent never seemed to mesh with either the Vinny Del Negro-coached Bulls of last season, or the group that is surprisingly threatening the Celtics and Heat in the East this year. Johnson had played a grand total of 3:40 in the 2011 calendar year with the Bulls, and just 123 minutes total on the season. Clearly, he wasn't in Chicago's plans.
The story could change in Toronto. The Raptors worked Johnson out extensively before the 2009 draft, when Chicago selected the Wake Forest sophomore 16th overall. Toronto is amongst the worst in the Eastern Conference this season, as it plays through the first year in the post-Chris Bosh(notes) era, and any late-season pickup to take a flier on past this season will probably be worth the effort.
The most surprising element of the deal was the first-round status of the pick Toronto sent Chicago's way. Initially, the idea of sending a first-rounder for a 24-year-old that has played 78 mostly undistinguished NBA games seems a little rash. But this is actually Miami's first-round pick (sent to Toronto in the sign-and-trade deal for Bosh), and the Heat are likely to boast one of the top three records in the NBA this year. In one of the weaker NBA drafts in recent memory, this doesn't bode well for the status of the selection. Worse, if the Bulls hang on to it, they could be getting what would usually be a mid-second-round talent for guaranteed first-round money. Not ideal.
But in losing Johnson's salary, and adding yet another pick to the stable, Chicago will have just under $3 million in cap room to finish this season out. This allows for the Bulls to send out more money in a deal this week than they would have to take in, which lessens restrictions and adds trading flexibility. And that's where the pick, even if it will look less-than-boffo come June, can come into play. Teams tend to think higher of first-round picks in February than they do in June, when the kids actually stroll into the practice facility to work out.
There are plenty of options to work with here for Chicago, even if it doesn't get the shooting guard they're looking for. None of the candidates out there (O.J. Mayo(notes), Courtney Lee(notes), Anthony Parker(notes)) is likely worth the price of sterling defensive big man Omer Asik(notes), but if Chicago can pull a deal off for the small price of some picks (the first-round selection that Charlotte owes Chicago won't be worth much until the lottery restrictions wear off in a few years) and payroll relief? Then the deal works for Chicago, even if the team should worry about wing depth and Luol Deng's(notes) ever-increasing minutes. Or it could sell Miami's pick to another team in June. Or it could get lucky in what is, again, a truly terrible draft.
James Johnson is a good guy and hard worker behind the scenes, but his on-court decision-making has been questioned throughout those 78 career games. Playing time has a way of helping that part of a player's game, so here's hoping that ideal holds up for the second-year forward in his new home. Johnson is under contract for next season at over $1.8 million, with a team option for 2012-13 for a few hundred thousand more.