Linton Johnson III to the rescue?


Mar 11

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Not hardly. Though the ultimate NBA journeyman and Chicago native, the nephew of Bulls near great Mickey Johnson, returns to where it started for him in the NBA in 2003.

The Bulls announced the signing of the 6-8 Johnson, a hustling wing defender with limited offensive skills, on Wednesday to a 10-day contract. It will be Johnson’s second stop with the Bulls, now nine teams in parts of six NBA seasons, including twice each with the Bulls and Suns.

No, this guy doesn’t unpack. And he rents.

But after that double overtime loss in Miami Monday, it became clear the Bulls need some help, if only to help carry the suitcases to the plane. And the oxygen tanks to the bench.

With Luol Deng out for several more weeks and perhaps the season-and even if he feels he can play in two weeks after sitting out who knows what condition he’ll be in-Tim Thomas having difficulties returning from knee problems, Kirk Hinrich with a thigh problem and not practicing and coach Vinny Del Negro apparently having little confidence in his bench, it became obvious the Bulls need at least a body to put in the game.

Johnson is hardly the answer given how little he’s played everywhere he’s been, including a brief try with the Bobcats earlier this season. Though the big prizes, the guys released like Joe Smith and Drew Gooden, were looking for potentially easy championship rings and not just a chance to make the playoffs. Plus with luxury tax issues, the Bulls apparently could only sign a lower level veteran.

Perhaps the bigger question as well now could be the use—or disuse—of the remainder of the current bench. Five Bulls played at least 45 minutes in Miami Monday with Aaron Gray, Lindsey Hunter and Anthony Roberson not getting off the bench against the likes of Chris Quinn and Joel Anthony.

I haven’t been a huge supporter of Gray. But with a depleted roster, you have to begin playing some of these guys or risk wearing out your players. You figure he could have played a few minutes in the second or third quarters and at least held his own again a Miami team almost totally reliant on Dwyane Wade and has four of its top seven first or second year players.

It’s often been said about Mike D’Antoni, who plays a running game and seven-player rotation, that he wore out his players that way. Del Negro also has taken to using seven players with an up-tempo Bulls, offensive oriented game. Some blamed D’Antoni’s limited rotation for the Suns playoff failures, though the Bulls would take just getting there. But now in New York, you see players like Chris Duhon wearing out with the extensive play.

We all screamed for Del Negro to keep Derrick Rose in the game in the fourth quarter, though it’s difficult to play the Bulls style with seven players.

So who knows if Johnson will even get a chance or for how long.

Though it is reaching a point with the Bulls that the deep bench players have to be getting some minutes, if not in key spots.

The issue, it seems, is the desperation to make the playoffs and what Del Negro must feel is the almost invisible Bulls margin for error.

The Bulls basically provided the margin for victory over Milwaukee last Friday when the Bucks went to their bench to open the second quarter. And the Bulls got back in the game to open the fourth quarter Monday when Miami went deep into its bench.

You cannot fault Del Negro for trying to take advantage of such situations. It’s good coaching. And the Bulls need every win they can get now in such a tight situation with the playoff race. Imagine the reaction if he went deep into his bench and cost the Bulls a game.

But you have to balance that against the risk of injuries from playing too much, though injuries can happen any time, and the perhaps inevitable fatigue if players are on the court too long in games.

The Bulls never flinched Monday down the stretch, impressively going blow for blow with the Heat. But the road gets tougher with 46-17 Orlando Wednesday and then a crucial game Friday against the 76ers, who appear to be one of the more vulnerable teams barely ahead of the Bulls and slumping.

Johnson can play some small forward and more likely power forward, and given his peripatetic career probably will be ready to play immediately.

As a Chicagoan and first signed by the Bulls in 2003 out of Tulane and playing in Rockford in the CBA, Johnson frequently works out at the Berto Center when he isn’t with a team.

He’s had quite the journeyman career in the NBA, going from the Bulls to the Spurs, where he got a championship ring from the 2005 team though playing in just two regular season games, and then to the Nets, Hornets, Spain, the Suns, Raptors, Suns again, Bobcats and now back to the Bulls. Johnson had his best run with that 2003-04 Bulls team that won 23 games, and he even got 20 starts.

I last caught up with him when he was briefly with the Suns last season, and he always has been one of the most relentlessly upbeat and optimistic players I’ve encountered in the NBA.

“I come in, I can guard anybody, bring great energy and rebounds. I’m sure that will pay dividends,” he said.

Johnson always says that, and always means that.

He’s a terrific athlete with a sculpted body. He looks like he should be better than he is.

He’s also a real Chicago guy from Providence-St Mel.

Johnson, 28, always jokes about having seven rings, the one he got from the Spurs-“I wake up and look at it every morning.”-and six as a fan of the Bulls in the 1990s. In fact, I remember him telling me he helped shut down the streets around the Chicago Stadium and Michigan Avenue in 1991 and 1992 in the post championship celebrations.

“I was one of those kids on Madison [Street],” Johnson said with a laugh. “It was tougher to get back in than I thought it would be.”

And that was last year. But give the guy credit. He never quits and never seems to get discouraged, and it’s a nice trait to have and a good influence to be around. I hope he can contribute for his sake as well as the Bulls’.

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