This was a guest post from Atique Virani.
When Bryan Colangelo was essentially fired from the basketball side of the Toronto Raptors organization, most observers believed it was the right call. The Raptors are very nearly capped out, with too much money tied up in the contracts of DeMar DeRozan, Rudy Gay, Landry Fields and Andrea Bargnani, and their draft pick is headed to Oklahoma City because of the Kyle Lowry trade, the ramifications of which are still to be seen. With all of that said, there is still reason for hope in Toronto, and that reason comes by way of none other than Colangelo himself: the young Raptors frontcourt duo of Amir Johnson and Jonas Valanciunas.
To date, the signing of Amir Johnson to a long-term deal remains Colangelo’s crowning achievement. Even the drafting of Jonas Valanciunas, who seems more and more awesome with each passing day, didn’t require the prescience, faith, and intelligence that an investment in the young, raw, extremely athletic forward out of Los Angeles did. And although Colangelo’s return on that investment wasn’t enough for him to keep his job, it has provided Toronto with one of the rarest of NBA assets, as described by Zach Lowe: a “big guy who can play both ends at a B-plus level.” The best part, for Raptors fans? Johnson is just 25 years old, and he’s shown the drive and ability to add to and refine his game. Amir could start on maybe half the teams in the NBA next season, and at $6 million a year, that makes him one of Toronto’s two or three best assets.
There’s not much to be said about the big Lithuanian rookie. Injuries (and a lack of success) dropped him from the national spotlight, but also helped him come on strong at the end of the season. His placement on the 2nd All-Rookie team seems fair. It’s a season long honor, and Jonas wasn’t great for the entire season. But what he showed since he came back from the injury has me convinced that he’s destined to be the second best rookie of the class, after Anthony Davis. He’s got a surprisingly smooth offensive game, and his defensive potential is just waiting to be mined. If all goes right, he might be able to hit his projected ceiling, that of “Tyson Chandler with a jump shot.” But it’s still early.
When these two players are paired together, Toronto has a frontcourt that might one day be the centerpiece of a good team. According to nbawowy.com, in the 465 minutes they played together, Toronto scored approximately 1.08 points per possession (PPP), as opposed to their overall mark of approximately 1.06 PPP. This marginal increase in offensive efficiency was accompanied by small improvements in Assist Percentage, Effective Field Goal Percentage, and True Shooting Percentage. It’s on defense where this young frontcourt made it’s greatest impact, though.
As you can see from the table below, Toronto’s defense got noticeably worse when either one or both of Amir and Jonas were off the court. The 655 minutes with neither big man playing were especially harrowing, as the Raptors allowed opponents a rather horrific PPP of 1.144, along with an eFG% of 51.4 and an average two-point shot distance of just 7.92 feet. With Amir and Jonas on the court, those numbers improved dramatically, to .998 PPP, 45.8%, and 9.09 feet. Opponents were forced to rely on midrange jumpers more, and shot dramatically worse at the rim. And because the frontcourt was so adept at turning away intruders to the paint without needing help, lineups with the two young big men even gave up fewer three-point attempts, too.
It’s possible that this has become overly optimistic. Amir and Jonas played together for only 465 minutes, and that’s not just because Dwane Casey really likes Aaron Gray. Amir still fouls too much, and Jonas is still prone to missing rotations. But what the Raptors have for the first time in a while is the chance to forge a real identity around a pair of young, and perhaps most importantly, cheap, players. That’s an opportunity that a lot of teams in the league never have. Whoever the next GM of the Raptors is, he’d be wise to take advantage.
This was a guest post from Atique Virani.