Re-signing Amir Johnson shouldn’t be an easy decision

Re-signing Amir Johnson is a fairly obvious thing to do. But is it the smartest?

Overpayment has been a problem for us. As a franchise we’ve overpaid free-agents more than anyone else, maybe it’s because we’re trying to compensate for our geography, or maybe we’ve just had GMs who love to splurge. Jason Kapono, Jose Calderon, Kris Humphries, and going a few years back, JYD, Rafer Alston, and Alvin Williams, have all benifitted from the Raptors’ generosity. Rarely has the payment been worth the production, and sometimes it’s hamstrung us in terms of the salary cap. This summer the Raptors will sit at the bargaining table with a free agent not named Chris Bosh, Amir Johnson.

As an 18-year old in Detroit, Johnson was glued to the bench his first two seasons, but did manage to average 15 minutes a game in his fourth campaign. After being traded to Toronto from Milwaukee, he averaged a career-high 17.7 minutes and showed that he belonged on the team as the certified garbage-man with a flare for hustle, and on the rare occasion, even an offensive highlight or two. Certainly, when the team needed a lift in energy and defense, Johnson provided the punch on most nights. In a town like Toronto where hustle is rewarded with love, and even regarded higher than skill, he quickly became a fan favorite. After all, on a team providing suspect effort on most nights, Johnson’s consistency shone brighter than it might have on other teams.

“I’m very sure any team which looks my way will get a guy who is going to play hard,” says Johnson. “I would be more than happy to come back here”. Just like Alvin Williams, Jerome Williams, Antonio Davis, and Jose Calderon, he’s public declared that he’d like to stay in Toronto, but at what cost? With a pricey cap-hold of $7.8M, the Raptors will likely deal with Amir Johnson early in the summer, but the need to quickly get this signing done shouldn’t compromise the judiciousness of it. Even though I personally consider playing hard and defending as much a skill as anything, we should keep in mind that what Johnson brings to the table is not exactly tough to find if you look hard enough. For example, D-League products Anthony Tolliver and Louis Amundson, DeJuan Blair (37th overall), Taj Gibson (26th overall), and Serge Ibaka (24th overall), are just a few examples of teams successfully targeting big men through the draft or D-League scouting.

Bryan Colangelo has made no secret of wanting him back. “We intend to bring him back, we want to bring him back. He wants to come back. The salary cap will determine what the number is”, said Colangelo. It’s easy GMing to just offer Johnson a contract when his value is the highest its ever been, it requires some serious outside-the-box thinking and scouting to get the same skill-set on the cheap elsewhere. If the Raptors have done their homework, they could renounce the right’s to Johnson, which in combination with Bosh opting out, should leave us with $8M of cap-space, even with a first-round pick. The question is should the Raptors take the obvious/easy route of just extending Johnson, or should they be bold enough to replace the hustle and energy Johnson brings through other avenues. As Steve suggested in his draft board, a player like Ekpe Udoh could fill the void left by Johnson.

When I was 23, my old man told me, “You’ve got your whole world ahead of you, son, forget this Raptors nonsense and go to medical school”. I didn’t listen and here I am writing this post, now, my annoying fidgety cousin listened to the same advice and he happens to be making some pretty good coin cleaning colons for a living. I’m not sure what the point of that little story was, but what I’m getting at is that Amir Johnson’s 23 years old. He’s got a good 10-12 years of NBA ball in him, so to say that he’ll forever be a cog in the bench might be selling him short. Maybe he’ll become the next Ben Wallace or Theo Ratliff (he used to be good), or maybe he’ll peak out at Kris Humphries, you just never know. In any case, if the Raptors do re-sign him, the salary number should reflect his current ability as a player, not what he might turn out to be.

I can see Johnson’s consistent effort netting some good offers around the league, for example, Miami has three players under contract and as they rebuild, I’m sure they’ll look at him when considering re-signing Joel Anthony or Udonis Haslem. The same could be said for New York as they re-tool, or even the Lakers as the spot of Adam Morrison is freed up, or if Bynum is swapped in the rumoured Bosh deal. There will be competition and just like it has in the past, the Raptors organizations will feel the need to overpay to retain a free-agent. Previously it was because of where the Raptors play, this time it will be because it takes a little more to convince a player to stay with a loser.

The Raptors’ lack of depth at the PF and C does play into his favor. Reggie Evans leads the team in REB/48 with 16.2, but other than a few hustle plays here and there, he’s had very little actual impact on defense. And whatever rebounds he collects usually result in a turnover or two missed FTs. He’s injury prone and can’t be counted on to provide the interior defensive presence that he used to bring in Philadelphia and Seattle. Chris Bosh is second with 14.4 and could very well be leaving. The next closest rotation player in terms of REB/48 is Andrea Bargnani who is almost a full 6 rebounds back at 8.5. One can safely assume that Patrick O’Bryant and Rasho Nesterovic are on their way out, which as of right now leaves us with only one big man with a guaranteed contract for next year – Reggie Evans.

As much shoring up as the 2/3 spots need, finding serviceable and tough big men to play their part has to be considered an equally important task. With questions facing every position except PG, and little to work with in terms of tradeable assets and cap room, Bryan Colangelo might just be trying to make lemonade without lemons. With the Houston Rockets intending to make a play for Bosh, he would do well to spend some time going up and down the Houston roster and see what he can work with.

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