So Luc, who’s better?

I really wish I could just write about the Conference Finals right now, but alas, this is a Raptors site and we need Raptors content. I’d assume you’re all watching Miami/Boston and Oklahoma City/San Antonio, but if you’re not you should really do yourselves a favor and tune in to games 5-7 of each series. They’ve been very different series, but the storylines and quality of basketball in each have been compelling to say the least. While the Celtics try to hang on for “one last run” and the Heat try to weather the storm without Bosh (due back for Game 5 Tuesday, according to reports), the Thunder are growing up before our eyes , and the Spurs continue to set the bar for all things basketball. It’s been a great playoffs so far, and maybe if we’re lucky we’ll get to be a part of them next season (the first round, anyway).

I digress. Raptors stuff, right? Just an FYI, I’m trying to coordinate an early mock draft with some other True Hoop Network blogs, aiming to post a mock draft of the lottery picks (with a rep from each team site making the selection for that particular team) later this week and then again closer to draft night when we have more information from workouts, scouting reports, etc. Just an interesting exercise to see how the different blog sites feel at each pick rather than the ‘expert’ mocks. Anyway, look for that sometime soon.

For today I wanted to have a look at Amir Johnson and Ed Davis. The fanbase here seems relatively split when it comes to choosing one over the other, and it’s a decision that the team may be faced with sooner than later. With Bargnani and Valanciunas mortal locks for regular playing time, and the likely need for another ‘big’ center on the roster, Davis and Amir might find themselves competing for back-up Power Forward minutes and scraps at the five. I’ve always been a Davis fan, but mostly for reasons I can’t fully explain, so I thought I should take a closer look and then open it up for debate.

Foremost, Amir makes significantly more money, so if one were to be moved, it makes more sense for it to be Amir. That is, moving Amir allows for more significant follow-up moves due to the extra cash available. Johnson is due $6M, then $6.5M and $7M the next three years, while Davis is still on his rookie contract and is owed $2.2M with a team option for $3.2M and then a $4.4M qualifying offer the year after. Ed is also two years Amir’s junior, so in theory he is earlier on the development curve and should have more time to grow still.

Statistically, Amir wins the battle at present time. If we use Simple Rating as a gauge, Amir was a +2.2 this year while Ed was a -3.3. Amir is a much more efficient scorer (57.9% eFG vs 51.3%) and is generally accepted as a better defender as well. The trouble with Amir comes in that his contributions are limited by foul trouble (3.3 FPG in 24.3MPG, while Davis is at 2.4 in 23.2), and that Ed is a better rebounder, grabbing 16.7% of available rebounds against Amir’s 15.4%. Their PERs, if that’s your cup of tea, are nearly identical just below the league-average 15 mark, with Amir’s turnovers negating his advantage in scoring efficiency.

It seems that in the box-score they’re nearly a wash, but Amir’s defensive ability makes him a more valuable player, depending on your metric of choice. A lot of this could be due to the effort Amir expends (leading to more fouls), or Davis being a bit more passive, though they both block about 3.5% of opposition shots and average right around a block a game. Blocks aside, Amir holds opposing PFs to just a 13.6 PER while that number jumps to 18.0 for Davis. Does Davis really turn Craig Smith into Kris Humphries? It’s difficult to say how much of this can be attributed to just the individual, but the evidence seems to weigh heavily in favor of Amir on that end.

Again, I should point out that Davis is earlier on the development curve, so can we expect improvement? Amir’s similarity scores rank him with Malik Rose and Phil Jackson, while Davis is too early in his career for Basketball Reference to provide a comparison. Basically, given Amir’s length of service and performance to date, history doesn’t look kindly on his ability to break out and be much more than a rotation contributor, though there’s nothing wrong with that other than the price tag (and that’s debatable, I suppose). For Davis, you’d like to give him a bit of a mulligan considering he missed his first NBA training camp due to a wrist injury and his second due to the lockout, meaning he’s basically operating on a slowed down development curve to this point.

Does Davis have enough upside remaining at age 23 to warrant a “free pass” for Amir’s superior defensive statistics? Will Davis start hitting those 3-9ft bunnies at greater than a 50% rate (45.3% last year)? Is his sub-par jump shot ever going to make him anything close to a threat beyond 10ft (25% from that range last year)? Amir has greatly improved in the short range since his early seasons (55% from 3-9ft last year), and he has some semblance of an 18-footer (35% from 16-23ft). Does this bode well for Davis, or are they too dissimilar to make this generalization?

Basically, some stats say Amir is the better player (as mentioned), while some see them as nearly equals (they are a lock in Win Shares per 48 minutes, for example). Amir definitely has the better jump shot and the stats back up his defense, while Ed is a stronger rebounder and still has ample development time left, at a financial discount no less. For whatever reason, and I can’t really explain since this analysis is a wash, if not in favor of Amir, I still think I’d prefer to move forward with Ed, his lower salary, and larger remaining potential, but I definitely couldn’t fault you if you’d rather swallow the above-average contract for a proven bench commodity in Amir. Of course, they may both remain on the team, and we’ll go with more small looks with one of them (or Bargs) occasionally manning the center position.

Thoughts, everyone?