It’s no secret that over the past few seasons, Jose Calderon and Amir Johnson have been thought of as an awesome tag-team combination for the Toronto Raptors. While each player individually has had his ups and downs, the one constant has seemed to be their ability to play well together.
And it makes sense intuitively – Amir sets good screens, dives to the rim hard, and is a capable enough mid-range shooter, while Calderon is excellent at setting up teammates from the pick-and-roll. Additionally, Amir is a strong help defender who could conceivably provide a bail-out when Calderon is beat by quicker guards.
Johnson with Calderon
This was on display in Wednesday’s game against Dallas, as Amir had a season-best performance of 18 points, 11 rebounds, and three assists, with Kyle Lowry out of the lineup and Calderon playing 33 minutes. This isn’t anything new, as through five games, Amir is shooting 58.3% when Jose is on the floor with him and just 37.5% when Calderon sits. His Net Rating (the difference in points scored per 100 possessions and points allowed per 100 possessions) is also 16.4-points better with Calderon than without, a huge margin of difference.
This is a small sample, of course, so I went back to last year as well. Last year, Johnson shot the same overall percentage (57.6%) with or without Calderon on the floor. While this doesn’t back up what we seem to believe, what is of note is that with Calderon on the floor, Johnson took 59.3% of his shots at the rim, compared to just 54.8% when Calderon was off. Basically, Amir settles for mid-range shots with a greater frequency when he’s not playing with Calderon. In addition, Amir’s Offensive Rating was much better (102.8 to 96.2) with Jose on the floor than without, and his Net Rating (1.2 to -0.3) was better as well. For whatever reason, Amir rebounds more and turns the ball over less when Jose accompanies him. One possible explanation is that Calderon gets him closer to the basket where offensive boards are easier to grab, and gets him the ball in situations where he has to handle it less, causing fewer turnovers.
When I looked back to 2010-11, this trend didn’t hold, as Johnson shot better and closer to the rim with Calderon out of the game and had roughly the same Net Rating with or without him (he was actually worse offensively with him but significantly better defensively, reversing last year’s trend). In 2009-10, Johnson shot better (63.8%) with Calderon than without (60.8%) and took slightly more shots at the rim, while having a much better rating at both ends of the floor.
So overall it does seem like Johnson plays better with Calderon. With the exception of 2010-11, his Net Rating is generally stronger with Calderon accompanying him.
Calderon with Johnson
I also thought I’d switch the analysis to see if Calderon performed any better with Amir on the floor with him. My assumption here would be that Amir’s success offensively could both improve Calderon’s assist rate while also improving his mid-range shooting, as Amir would, in theory, open up more space on the pick-and-roll. In addition, the help Amir can provide on defense could hide some of Calderon’s shortcomings at that end.
So far this season, Jose’s assist ratio has been 5.3% higher with Johnson on the floor, while his Net Rating has been an astounding 37.6-points better. Jose’s shooting from all areas has also been better, but we’re again dealing with a tiny, 114-minute sample, so let’s look at previous years.
Last season, Calderon was a ludicrous 10.6-points better in terms of Net Rating with Amir by his side, showing a drastic improvement on both ends of the floor. His assist rate shot from an elite 39.4% to an otherworldly 46.3% when Amir joined him, and his shooting percentage increased for shots at the rim, shots from 15-19 feet and three-pointers (it decreased for 20-24 footers).
In 2010-11, the year where Johnson didn’t seem to need Calderon, Jose still needed Amir. His Net Rating was seven points better playing with Johnson, the gain being entirely from the defensive side of things, though his assist ratio was no different and the changes in his shooting percentages were negligible. In 2009-10, Calderon was a ridiculous 14.4-points of Net Rating better with Amir, once again almost entirely from the defensive side.
In total, it seems that Jose is equally capable offensively with or without Johnson. However, the drastic improvement to Calderon’s Defensive Rating with Johnson on the floor with him is both consistent and significant. Whether Amir is just a strong help defender or the other bigs Calderon has played with were especially weak is unclear, but the evidence is stark that Calderon generally needs Johnson so be part of an effective defensive unit.
So, it means nothing if Amir is better offensively with Jose and Jose is better defensively with Amir if it doesn’t change anything at the team level. So using NBA’s Advanced Stats Tool, I looked at the Amir-Jose two-man combination compared to the team norms for the past few years. The table below shows the differences.
Here we see that for every single season, Amir-Jose lineups have outperformed the team as a whole. They’ve also been better at both ends of the floor.
So far this season, Jose and Amir have played 67 minutes together, while Jose has played 47 without Amir and Amir has played 28 minutes without Jose. It seems drastic to pair two players together exclusively, but the evidence seems to show that these two should be deployed together whenever possible. In particular, the trio of Jose, Amir and Andrea Bargnani has been especially productive on the offensive end this season (Offensive Rating of 136.4) and that trio was also successful last season with a Net Rating of 6.2 as well.
There’s no official word yet on if Kyle Lowry will be good to go for Saturday’s home game against his hometown Philadelphia 76ers. If he’s not, there’s evidence here to suggest Amir Johnson should be in for a big chunk of minutes with Calderon manning the controls. And if, Shuttlesworth willing, Lowry is able to play Saturday, rest assured we have a very capable duo at the ready off the bench.
Oh, what’s that Alan Anderson?…You’re just going to take the ball and take all the shots? Well then…nevermind.