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One injury can change the trajectory of an entire season, and Cam Johnson’s right knee injury is no different for the Phoenix Suns.
On Sunday morning, the team confirmed that the non-contact injury Johnson suffered in Friday’s game against the Portland Trail Blazers was in fact a torn meniscus. The fourth-year forward will undergo surgery, and there is no timetable for his return.
Losing a starter on any title contender is a critical blow, but that’s especially true for a Suns squad that was already missing one starting-caliber player heading into the season. Even without the other minor, early-season injuries that are piling up, Phoenix is quickly running short on depth.
“He’s a starter for us, so that’s always a tough blow just to see a guy not be in the lineup, that kind of thing,” coach Monty Williams said before the Suns knew the full extent of the injury. “But that happens throughout the season. You just have to make your adjustments.”
While his potential timetable remains unclear, losing him for the foreseeable future will have several ripple effects. Here’s what to expect from an unfortunate situation moving forward.
Devastating news for Cam Johnson
First and foremost, it needs to be said: This is brutal news for Johnson himself, who now faces a difficult choice in how to go about his recovery process.
“It’s really tough, obviously most for him,” Devin Booker said. “We’re here with him with whatever he needs, he’s gonna be around the team. We say ‘family’ every time we break it down, and that’s the situation we’re in.”
“It’s unfortunate,” Chris Paul added. “It’s my third year here, and just getting to know Cam and knowing how great of a guy he is, how hard he works, getting into the starting lineup — it’s a big year for him. This ain’t it. It’s just a hurdle that he’s gonna have to overcome, and we’re gonna be right there with him.”
Suns fans may be familiar with this dilemma thanks to Eric Bledsoe, and general NBA fans probably recall Dwyane Wade’s situation, but the two ways to typically deal with a meniscus tear are to either remove it or repair it.
Removing it comes with a shorter timetable to return in the 4-6 weeks range, but at the cost of longevity; Wade admitted his decision to remove his torn meniscus back in 2002 at Marquette contributed to his chronic knee issues with the Miami Heat. Repairing it comes with a longer timetable (4-8 months), but it’s generally the more viable long-term solution.
In just his fourth NBA season, there’s no easy answer for Johnson. The sharpshooter has said over and over how much he enjoys being in Phoenix and helping build up a winning program. With him healthy, this Suns team has a legitimate shot at winning a title, and in a contract year, he may feel added pressure to return sooner rather than later.
However, for a guy who’s increasingly becoming known as injury-prone, Johnson also has to weigh his long-term future. He entered the league as an older player, but he’s still only 26, and his pure shooting ability will keep him relevant in the league into his mid-to-late 30s…if he can stay healthy.
With a 5-6 month recovery timeline, Johnson still might be available to return by April or May. That’s less than ideal timing for a Suns team that would need to reintegrate their starting 4 in the midst of the playoffs, but it’s better than nothing. So if repairing the meniscus is what Johnson feels is best for him and his outlook after the Suns neglected to extend his contract, that’s what he should do. As a restricted free agent, there’s also a greater likelihood he remains in Phoenix, since the Suns could match any outside offer.
The obvious downside is this setback just cost him a lot of money. It’s a truly unfortunate set of circumstances for Johnson, who’s reaffirmed over and over how much he wants to be in Phoenix and who serves as an integral part of their current core. Aside from starting to thrive as a starter, he’s also a well-liked guy in the locker room and within the fanbase.
“I’ll be there for him if he needs some advice,” said Dario Saric, who is no stranger to knee injuries. “It’s tough, but I think he’s a strong guy. He’s a really mentally [tough] guy, comes in the gym every day. He has his routine and he’s a hardworking guy, so I think for him it will be easy to overcome that.”
Whichever course of action Johnson pursues, everyone involved will be hoping for a speedy, full recovery.
Impact on the Suns
With Johnson out for the immediate future, the Suns face a hard truth: As currently constructed, they’ll be hard-pressed to prove themselves as title contenders. Torrey Craig is a capable understudy for the regular season, and barring any trades, he’s the most likely long-term candidate to fill in for Johnson, as he has the past two games.
“He’s been thrown into a number of situations with us, and I thought his energy tonight was great,” Williams said of Craig after Saturday’s game. “I thought he was really good tonight, and he’s just been a maniac attacking the glass this year. When he’s knocking down his 3-point shot from the corners, it just adds to what he brings to the table every night.”
Unfortunately, promoting Craig to the starting lineup further shortens an already spotty bench unit, and he can’t replicate the raw firepower, driving ability, movement shooting, rapid 3-point release or floor-spacing that Johnson provides.
Losing a guy who was averaging 14.9 points and 7.1 long-range attempts before he got hurt will be tough to replace, especially when that production came on 44 percent shooting from deep. Johnson’s quick stroke and high release point at 6-foot-8 made him a constant threat on the perimeter, and in addition to attacking poor closeouts off the bounce, the Suns were doing a better job of setting him up for more corner 3s:
Craig’s offensive rebounding is a boon, but with more 3-point attempts likely heading his way as a starter, it’d take a miracle for his current 40.9 percent shooting from downtown to hold up. Still, Saturday’s dominant win over the Blazers was a decent start, as Craig finished with 5 points, 5 rebounds, 4 assists, 3 blocks and 1 steal.
“It’s obviously a different situation than Cam Johnson, but he defends at a high level,” Booker said. “He’s given Mikal [Bridges] some breaks on [Jerami] Grant, so they switched it up a bit, and making open shots too. He’s been making a few corner 3s yesterday and today.”
The four-man lineup of Chris Paul, Devin Booker, Mikal Bridges and Johnson was dominant, boasting a +29.5 Net Rating in 148 minutes together — the Suns’ most-used four-man lineup by 31 minutes before Saturday.
Plug Craig in Johnson’s place and round out the starting lineup with Deandre Ayton, and that five-man group has posted a -3.6 Net Rating in 42 minutes together so far, per NBA.com, but it was a -14.5 Net Rating before Saturday’s superior effort.
“It’s new, and Torrey’s a pro,” Paul said of the starting lineup. “Torrey’s played overseas, he’s played all around the league, and he’s very adaptive, so we’re lucky to have the depth that we have.”
Craig may be the new starter, but Johnson’s absence puts pressure on everyone in the starting five to shoulder an even heavier load. More specifically, the onus will fall on Mikal Bridges and Chris Paul to step up their aggression. Gone are the days where Bridges can finish with fewer than 10 points, and his 9.2 shot attempts per game are far too low for a player who has the ability to create his own shots off the dribble, shoot 3s and cut off the ball.
As for CP3, we’ve already covered his adjustment process to spending more time off the ball, as well as his need to launch more catch-and-shoot 3. There can’t be any more games like Friday, where he only took four shots.
“As much as we want to facilitate through other guys, we don’t want him to not touch the ball on consecutive possessions down the floor,” Williams said. “I don’t think that benefits us at all. I do think we have to continue to find a balance though.”
Johnson’s absence puts additional strain on an already thin rotation as well.
Cam Payne has to continue to be solid as he embarks on a hopeful bounce-back season. Landry Shamet will have to provide some of the movement shooting Johnson did, even if it’s off the bench. Ish Wainright could see more time. And while Lee is too undersized to start at the 4, but he’s shown a penchant for making winning plays and hitting big shots. The second unit badly needs that — and his 46.2 percent 3-point shooting — to continue.
“D-Lee is a champion, man,” Ayton said. “You can just see that competitive winning spirit in him. Nothing bothers that dude, and it’s so contagious. Just the way how he competes and his energy on the bench before his name is called up, that’s what winning is about.”
Dario Saric, who’s seen his minutes as a backup center turned over to Jock Landale, will also get an opportunity to shake the rust off as a 4. He has the size to start in Johnson’s place, but lacks the mobility and is still trying to find himself again. Saturday was his most promising stint yet, as the Homie put up 9 points and 9 rebounds in 21 minutes off the bench.
“I try to fit now, especially with Cam out, probably get some minutes more at the 4,” Saric said. “So trying to be ready. It’s not ever gonna be perfect, but I’m gonna try to have solid games every night, try to be as best as I can, and that’s in my mind right now.”
Beyond those three, Josh Okogie will get rotation minutes, where his elite defense (3 rebounds, 1 block and 1 steal in 16 minutes) will have to find a way to outweigh his abhorrent offense (1-of-4 shooting, 3 turnovers). Unleashing him as an unhinged point-of-attack defender might be key to making those minutes work.
Suns could use some external help too
To this point, general manager James Jones has been playing with house money. He’s helped turn this franchise around from bottom-feeder to title contender in just a few years, and his teams have typically avoided the kinds of major injuries that force GMs into making moves with urgency.
Even last year, when it became obvious the Suns didn’t do enough at the trade deadline, Jones’ strategy of only making moves on the margins was at least defensible: The Suns were the top team in the NBA by a wide margin, and nobody saw that second-round collapse unfolding the way it did.
This situation feels different. The Suns have a great young core that will keep them competitive for the foreseeable future, and even if Cam Johnson misses the whole season, they’ll still compete for home-court advantage. But Johnson’s injury lowers Phoenix’s ceiling and margin for error. The future is bright, but their immediate title window, with Chris Paul being 37, won’t stay open forever.
In other words, the time is now to sort out their Jae Crowder mess and either bring him back into the fold or trade him to give this team some aid. The Suns shouldn’t settle for some lowly panic trade, but they’re also currently wasting one open roster spot, another on a guy who hasn’t suited up for them once all season, and the injured Johnson occupies a third.
We’ve covered potential Jae Crowder trades not once, but twice, so we won’t go into too much detail. But for a team missing two starting-caliber 4s who can play both ends of the court, they need help at that position. Craig has been great, and the bench has been better than advertised, but last year proved that regular-season wins can’t hide roster shortcomings once the postseason starts.
Aside from trades, the Suns also have mid-level money to beat out other prospective offers for free agents or players who get bought out. Carmelo Anthony is one popular name that’s come up, and while he’s hardly a starting-caliber player anymore, he’d serve nicely as a temporary band-aid who can hit spot-up 3s and create offense.
The Suns are 7-2, sitting at No. 1 in the West. But a rotation of Craig, Saric and a possibly-returning-from-injury Cam Johnson isn’t enough to get Phoenix to the promised land. That means the pressure on Jones to resolve the Crowder situation and address the roster’s shortcomings has kicked up another notch.
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