We Toronto fans are an emotional bunch. The cold weather has us upset, inside and in front of the television all winter; emotionally investing in our teams more than a healthily adjusted human being probably ought to. The 2012-2013 season hasn’t exactly been a joie de vivre for Raptors fans. Most of us were ready to give Kyle Lowry our first born son after the first 3 games of the season when he led the team in points, rebounds, assists, steals and field goal percentage. Three quarters of the way through the season later, we have an idea why Houston gave him up for our lottery pick.

The Rudy Gay trade was as tough to support as it was to criticize. Watching Ed Davis finally begin to blossom with consistent minutes had been one of the few bright spots of the season, and losing him was a sentimental loss. Before even mentioning my feelings on Gay, let it be known that I have no interest in being a part of the Rudy Gay defenders vs. haters comment section turf war. To that end, I’ll avoid getting into salary cap realities or the ‘nerdery’ of efficiency arguments. I think that Gay is a really good player; he’s a borderline all-star, makes his team better defensively and has been tremendous in the clutch. What I can’t get past is how Memphis was willing to trade him because he was the third best player on a team that still wasn’t championship calibre. How can that possibly be the description of a franchise player? I’ve been a Toronto Maple Leafs fan for far too long to celebrate rationalizing a very good player as a great one. That’s how mediocre teams are made. The goal should be higher than just good enough to make the playoffs.

So what do Raptor’s fans have to be happy about this season? Terrence Ross’ dunk contest victory was fun to watch. But, for a fan-base that hasn’t been to the playoffs in five years, another dunk contest victory feels too much like getting a participant ribbon while watching the winning teams get their trophies. Am I happy for Terrence Ross? Absolutely. But am I happy? Not so much.
I don’t believe that the 2012-2013 season has been lost though. There are feel-good stories nestled inside that 26-44 record. And chief among them for me has been Amir Johnson.

When Amir Johnson was resigned to a five year, $30 million dollar contract in July of 2010, the response of Raptor fans was a collectively long and drawn out, sarcastic ‘Greeeaaaaaaaaaaaat.’ It wasn’t that we had any ill will towards Amir, but in a week when Chris Bosh had just dumped us on national TV, the third star player to spurn the franchise, we weren’t really in the best of moods. Amir Johnson demonstrated upside, but it was impossible to tell if that upside would ever be realized by a player who acted like a walking personal foul. Amir’s per 36 minutes stats suggested that he could be a double-double player, but he had averaged over 6 fouls in those per 36-minute stats for every year of his career up to that point. If it seemed to you like Amir Johnson was always in foul trouble when you watched on TV, it’s because he was. This explained why he had never averaged more 24 minutes a game, chaining his potential.

The 2010-2011 season seemed to validate both the investment and the trepidation over Amir Johnson. He bumped his per game numbers in minutes, rebounds and points up, demonstrating both improvement and potential. But fouls continued to contain him. Johnson played 24 minutes a game most nights because he had to be sat down with fouls, not because he didn’t belong out there. He also played the same position as the Raptors highest paid player, Andrea Bargnani, and their new first round draft pick, Ed Davis. The only national attention Amir got this season was a mention in Bill Simmons worst contracts in the league column as the punch line of a Bryan Colangelo joke. The optimism remained more in potential than reality.

Between the lockout and the 23-43 record, last season seemed like a lost season for the Raptors. What was noteworthy to see though was how much better they did with Amir Johnson getting more minutes when Andrea Bargnani went down. The advanced stats backed up the eye test, as the Raptors were more than 7 points per 100 possessions better when Amir was on the floor compared to when he was on the bench. That very quietly made Johnson one of the most valuable players on the team, and reason to look forward to his 2012-2013 season.

During this past 2012-2013 season, Amir Johnson has not disappointed. Johnson has been a defensive rock for the Raptors. The Raptors have a defensive efficiency rating of 104.9 (that’s 104.9 points per 100 possessions) when Johnson is on the floor, which would be good for 12th place overall, between Philadelphia and Miami. However, when Johnson sits, the Raptors defense gives up a defensive rating of 111.3, which is only a fraction better than the league worst and historically bad Sacramento Kings and Charlotte Bobcats. Johnson’s defense is largely the product of effort, as he is willing to play the grunt work of fighting for defensive rebounds and moving opposing big men off the spots where they want the ball. This kind of effort was on display when the Raptors beat the visiting Clippers back on February 1st. Without Chris Paul, the Clippers had still been winning with Blake Griffin scoring and facilitating from the low post. Amir Johnson had the task of stopping Griffin, one of the strongest power forwards in the league. He did so by bullying Griffin off the low block before he could get the ball, and then not allowing him to back his way down once he got it. The Raptors would double with their second big man and Griffin would be forced to pass the ball back out. This kind of defense is a lot more work than it sounds like, and the patience it requires is uncommon, especially against someone as strong and talented as Griffin. By the end of the 3rd quarter, Griffin was visibly frustrated by Johnson, and spent most of the 4th quarter on the bench.

It’s not just defense out of the post for Johnson, who is leading the team in blocks despite being an undersized centre. His improved timing on defensive rotations from the weak side has his blocks up to 1.3 per game. The fact that he’s putting up more blocks and less fouls while playing more minutes is evidence of a new found patience. Johnson has always been an energetic player willing to play his heart out, but defense requires staying on your feet for pump fakes, moving your feet instead of reaching and challenging shots instead of trying to block them every time. Johnson’s energy is a great gift, but the enthusiasm that came with it got him in to foul trouble, removing him from the game. As he has learned when to rotate, improved his footwork and, perhaps most importantly, his patience, he has seen his fouls finally start to go down. This has improved his defense, and let him spend more time on the court to reveal a developing offensive game.

Amir Johnson has also been a pleasant surprise on the offensive side of the court this season. The Raptors are a better offensive team than the Lakers when Johnson plays, with an offensive efficiency rating of 109.7, which is good enough to crack the top 10 in the league. However, with Johnson on the bench, the Raptors offence ranks even with that of the Orlando Magic and Minnesota Timberwolves, uncomfortably close to the bottom dregs of the league. Besides being the best offensive rebounder on the team, Amir Johnson brings his real value to the game away from the basket. The NBA is dominated by the pick and roll and plays that utilize screens to get wing players open looks from outside or lanes to drive to the basket. Finding a big man who can thrive in this environment is more difficult than you might think. This kind of offensive system means less touches down low for the big man, and ego is always a factor in the NBA (just ask Dwight Howard how he feels about it). But more than that, it requires an exceptional amount of effort from those big men, who have to work a lot harder than most to lug their 6’10, 270 lbs. bodies all over the court. When the ball changes possession, a team’s centre is almost always standing right underneath his team’s net, either rebounding or inbounding the ball. He has to sprint up the floor all the way to the same spot on the other end of the court while the offence sets. Then he has to run up to the top of the 3-point arc to plant his feet and set a screen for a teammate that results in his defender running into him. It’s a lot of work, and to do it well requires speed and enthusiasm, or proves ineffective (again, just ask Dwight Howard, who hasn’t met a screen he actually wanted to set this entire season). Johnson does this tirelessly, and it is often what frees up the middle of the court for DeRozan or Gay to drive, or frees up Lowry, and especially Calderon before him, to take a shot at the elbow or hit a cutting teammate going to the basket. Johnson is a crucial part of setting the whole team’s offence in this way, but he gets to be a part of it in the high-low pick and roll.

Amir Johnson pick and roll

Johnson has proven to be an absolute beast in setting a high pick for the point guard, sealing his own man and rolling hard to the basket. Squint your eyes a little, and you might think he’s Amare Stoudemire or Tyson Chandler as he takes an easy pass for Tomahawk dunk after Tomahawk dunk. This offence comes in part from an improving skill set and touch around the basket, but it is much more the result of a tireless effort and willingness to play a team role.

As impressive as the efficiency numbers are, it’s that last point that has endeared Amir Johnson the most to Toronto fans. Toronto is a hockey crazed market, where we celebrate a grinder who works hard in the corners, drops his gloves and gets stitched up on the bench as much or more than a flashy goal scorer. Raptors fans can see Amir Johnson playing this role for the Raptors, and he has found himself adored as a result. Playing with this haircut and showing up at a Leafs game like this has endeared him even more to a city that is longing for an emotional attachment to a basketball player who actually wants to play here too. Don’t get me wrong; Amir Johnson is not going to be Hakeem Olajuwon. But when you hear the roar of the Air Canada Centre crowd whenever Amir subs in for Andrea Bargnani, it certainly sounds as if they think he is by comparison. While his style of play has endeared Amir Johnson to Toronto fans, his improvement has had an even bigger impact on the play of the team. And when that comes from a 25 year old who is under contract and happy to be in Toronto, it’s reason enough to look forward to next winter.

Andrew Thompson

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24 Responses to “Amir Johnson: Not a Mere Johnson”

  1. Guest

    Rudy Gay has never made an all star team and he shoots 32% in the clutch. 2 of the shots he happened to make were game-winners. I think he can be good, I just don’t think he makes the right plays a lot of the time.

    • The Rub

      I’ll agree that he doesn’t make the right play a lot of times (and has a fair amount of flaws to his game) but he is a clutch shooter and that stat you posted isn’t going to change that. Those “clutch” stats are so deceiving because they take the last 5 minutes of the game and look past obvious things that any even half knowledgeable fan recognizes instantly (tougher shots, forced to shoot more, harder defense, playing catch-up, etc).

      I believe they ran the same stat for all NBA players last year and from those that qualified (enough shots taken) Kobe Bryant was at or close to the bottom in Clutch Time shooting percentage. Which if you even pay even the slightest attention to basketball you know that’s bullshit, if the Lakers are down by 1 the opponent would rather anyone on that team take the last shot except Kobe, and when it comes to the Raptors it’s the same thing with Rudy Gay. The numbers do lie in this instance.

      • Guest

        5>mins: Kobe (42%), Rudy (32%)
        4>mins: Kobe (44%), Rudy (37%)
        3>mins: Kobe (44%), Rudy (30%)
        2>mins: Kobe (43%), Rudy (30%)
        1>mins: Kobe (39%), Rudy (30%)
        30>secs: Kobe (41%), Rudy (35%)
        10>secs: Kobe (25%), Rudy (20%) *Demar Derozan (29%)

        Please don’t compare Rudy Gay and Kobe Bryant as closers.

        • The Rub

          I’m just telling you what the numbers say, and numbers may say Derozan is better at the end, but anyone with eyes can see that’s not the case

          • Guest

            I was just putting in Demar’s numbers to give you some perspective as he has hit as many shots as Gay in the last 10 seconds at a better percentage but my primary argument was that Rudy cannot be compared to Kobe as a closer because of his very poor percentage. Essentially he turns into Alan Anderson: high confidence, poor results.

  2. Jamshid

    “And when that comes from a 25 year old who is under contract and happy to be in Toronto, it’s reason enough to look forward to next winter.”
    A 25 year old which has been in the league for past 8 years !!! A player who is limited offensively and is useless outside 16 foot.

    I can not understand the fascination of the Raptor fans with Amir !!!

    Amir is a good big off the bench, for limited minutes. A burst of energy and hustle. Nothing more , nothing less. He is a great first big off the bench. Now, looking at the money he got paid last 2 years and his productivity on those seasons and averaging it out over this season and next !!!! his contract is still on the high side.

    • Bill

      I don’t see anything wrong with him not being a bad shooter from 16 feet out, as I’d rather he continue to take shots closer to the basket

      • Jamshid

        You should look at the article that Arsenalist posted after the Boston game where he broke down a play that involved Amir and how Garnett knowing Amir’s limitation, gave him all the space and crowded the paint. This is what having a limited offensive player do to your game.

        As I said, Amir is a good big off the bench but lets not make him more than what he is. As far as his contract goes too, I like to see him continue next year then to see if he was over paid or not.

        • The Truth

          I see that as more of a symptom of bigger issues with the team as constructed than with Amir himself though. When you are thinking “geez we could really do with a centre who has a 16 foot game”, especially when you have a “stretch” PF on the roster as well (for whatever that is worth) then I think you really need to take a step back and look at the bigger picture.

          I mean in that situation Garnett can clog the paint not just because he knows that Amir is no good from that range, but also because worst case scenario he is going to kick it to one of our wings who are also more often than not pretty inefficient scorers from range as well.

    • Guest

      13 ppg on 55%+ shooting with a soft touch and a nice spin move as well as a developing jumper is not what i call limited offensively. Btw he’s the anchor of our defense and our best rebounder. Oh and you’re right I’d much rather a guy effective outside of 16 feet. Oh wait, we tried that already…

      • Jamshid

        13 ppg based on what stat ?? Even if we take into account the recent meaningless games late this season. he is averaging 10.1 ppg !!

        Now as far as not wanting him to take a shot outside the 16 feet, I have no problem with that but that does not mean he is not limited offensively. That is the definition of being limited.

        • Guest

          He is averaging 13 ppg as a starter. I want him around the net, where he is extremely capable. Combine that with an improving jumper and I think that you have a guy who not limited offensively. Is he a shooter?No but again we have already made the error of trying the shooting big man. All players but a select few are limited offensively if you look only at their weaknesses but that does not mean that players like Amir who don’t have the full set of tools can’t be effective which he has been.

        • smh

          “Even if we take into account the recent meaningless games late this season. he is averaging 10.1 ppg” So is Tyson Chandler.

    • DumbassKicker

      You’re an idiot. Based on your type of reasoning, D Wade isn’t worth his contract, or shouldn’t be a starter, because he’s “limited offensively”, as in he’s not even in the top 40+ SGs in the league, 3P% wise.

    • The Truth

      “…and is useless outside 16 foot.”
      Oh I don’t know about that, his 3-point percentage for the season is as good as that of our two “best” wings (Gay and Demar) ;p.

  3. 511

    I saw this substantial looking post and I didn’t want to read it … until I just went ahead and did so. I have to say, I’m impressed. Good stuff, Andrew Thompson.

    Early in the season, Amir didn’t seem as on-his-game as I had been expecting him to be, and then he got hurt … and almost as if he was out to prove my pet theory that he plays better when he’s injured (and no, I don’t REALLY believe that … I don’t think), he upped the level of his play substantially, and he’s been leading the way ever since.

    There’s been little question as far as I’ve been concerned, that he’s been the best Raptor on the floor, game-in and game-out, for most of the year. And the stats you mention sort of prove that, don’t they? To me, he’s now worth every penny he gets. And it’s all about that word you use a few times: effort. He’s as tough as they come and he goes about his business with good cheer and steadfast diligence. What’s not to love?

    The only objection you might get from me (about this post) is when you suggest that Rudy is a borderline All Star. Now … I am definitely one who did not want to see Ed Davis get traded, but that was because of Ed; not because of Rudy. I didn’t know Rudy Gay well enough to be anything but mildly intrigued … but reading the comments that were out there from the Memphis fans, who (as it turned out) were right on the mark about his high volume/low percentage shooting, I was queasy enough about the whole thing that, factored in with his (to me) ridiculously high-paying contract, the idea of losing Ed along with Jose for Rudy Gay felt allll wrong.

    Then the trade happened and then Rudy hit a couple of game-winning shots … and I fell into the ether with most everyone else. For a little while.

    Now, a couple of months later, all I see in Rudy Gay is a very talented player who – quite unfortunately, for us – thinks (seemingly) in a limited dimension that suggests a belief that if he can SEE the basket, he should most definitely take the shot. The worst part of it (that I see) is that he’s obviously been doing it for so long that I can’t imagine it being fixed.

    To me, the only thing about Rudy that suggests he’s a borderline All Star is his salary.

    But anyway (to finish up, getting back to the main subject at hand), what you’ve written about Amir here is something to feel good about as a Raptors fan, while we slog through whatever’s left of this season.

    I hope you do more of these.

    Thanks for the good read.

  4. Axl t

    Very refreshing to see a Raptors blog still doing actual analysis!
    Great read…

  5. Greg

    I think Amir makes a case as being some interesting potential trade bait at some point this off season. He might not be the most polished big offensively, but his defensive skills should make him an interesting trade target to the right team. Off the top of my head I would think that the 76ers would be sniffing around after the absolute mess that has been the Andrew Bynum era for them. Having a solid 4/5 would certainly help them going forward to worth with whatever combination of Kwame Brown, Spenser Hawes, et al. are going to be back next year.


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