When Amir Johnson decided to re-sign with the Raptors, back in 2010, and agreed to the 5 year, $30 million contract, many pundits and fans around the NBA quickly condemned the deal, feeling it was a massive overpayment. Although Amir had always been a productive and efficient player who worked hard on both ends of the court, he’d only played one season where he averaged more than 17 minutes per game, and foul trouble always seemed to prevent him from averaging more than 25 minutes a game.
Fast forward three-plus years, and Amir has become one of the most consistent players on the team and quite possibly the team’s most valuable player since Chris Bosh left for Miami. He’s been as productive as a starter as he has been a reserve, and his production has been, for the most part, the same as his minutes has increased.
Since he signed his current contract, he’s had the sixth highest True Shooting Percentage, the 13th highest Offensive Rebounding Percentage, and the 28th highest Win Share in the league over the last three-plus years.
Despite all this, a lot of fans still seem to think the Raptors would be better off with him coming off the bench and with a bigger offensive threat as the starting power forward.
That perplexes me.
Now, Amir Johnson is never going to make an All Star game. He’s never going to come close to be a 20-10 guy. But he makes the game easier for everyone around him. He doesn’t need the ball to be effective. He will set screens, move without the ball, dive for loose balls and grab missed shots. And he play above average defense, as well.
Mike Prada, over at SB Nation, wrote a fantastic article that looked into just how effective Amir’s screen setting is in making his teammates better.
And yet, his presence on the court makes a staggering difference for the Raptors. Last season, Toronto outscored opponents by 4.1 points per 100 possessions with Johnson in the game … and were outscored by 9.9 points per 100 possessions with him on the bench. That’s a 14-point swing. It’s also the fourth straight year where the difference of Johnson being in and out of the game was more than seven points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com. This is not an anomaly.
It makes sense to me that you’d want a player like that playing with your starters as much as possible because he just makes it easier for them to score AND he’s going to help them defensively.
I recently had a discussion with someone about what Amir Johnson’s trade value would be. He suggested the Raptors should be happy getting a late first round pick for him. I thought that was ridiculously low value for a 26 year old big man who scores efficiently, plays defense, rebounds and works hard on both ends of the court.
It occurred to me that Amir is very similar to another former beloved Raptor who cost the Raptors the fifth pick in the 1999 draft.
Antonio Davis came to the Raptors as a 30 year old energy player who had played the vast majority of his games, up to that point, off the bench. In Zander Hollander’s 1997 Complete Book of Pro Basketball, Davis was described this way:
…has a decent face up jumper and is developing some post moves….Explosive leaper…Forced to split minutes at center where he’s often overmatched, but never outworked…
Sound like someone else you know?
Both players are/were 6’9 athletic big men who hustle, work hard on both ends of the court, but have/had limited offensive games. Both were second round picks originally from California who didn’t make an immediate impact in the league and had to develop their game.
Even their stats are pretty similar.
These are Antonio Davis’ stats the season before he was traded to Toronto (lockout shortened season):
And these were Amir Johnson’s last season:
Now, obviously these basic stats don’t tell the whole story, but it’s interesting how similar they are. If anything, Amir is slightly more productive, and definitely more efficient, offensively.
Even their advanced stats are similar:
The first table is Davis’ and the second one is Amir’s. It’s almost eerie.
Now, I’m not going to argue that Amir is worth a fifth pick in the draft. Would YOU trade a fifth pick for Amir? I certainly wouldn’t. And considering that the Raptors could have ended up with Shawn Marion1, who ironically was taken by Bryan Colangelo for Phoenix, it could definitely be argued that the trade was not a great one for the Raptors.
Davis’ addition, however, was a key to the team’s immediate success the next season (the team made the playoffs for the first time in franchise history) and their march to the second round of the playoffs the season after.
So while I don’t think Amir is untradeable, I think if you want to upgrade the roster, the starting power forward position is probably the least of your worries. Adding a scoring big man isn’t necessarily going to help your team score more, or more efficiently. In fact, the evidence supports the argument that Amir, despite his offensive limitations, already helps the team score, just not by his own doing.
And with Jonas Valanciunas needing touches and shots in order to develop his blossoming offensive game, the last thing the Raptors need is to acquire a frontcourt partner who will take shots away from Valanciunas.
Amir is the type of player that every team needs. But he’s also the type of player that doesn’t stick out of the casual fan, because he doesn’t fill up the stat sheet.
He’s the Raptor’s no-stat All Star.
1. While Indiana took Jonathan Bender with Toronto’s 5th pick, it’s doubtful the Raptors, who wanted a player who could make more of an immediate impact, would have drafted the painfully thin high school player who everyone knew would take time to develop.
You could also argue they wouldn’t have taken either Wally Szczerbiak or Richard Hamilton, who would have been duplicates on a roster that already had Vince Carter and Tracy McGrady. The Raptors could have also taken Andre Miller, who, while not an All Star, has had a VERY good career and would have helped the Raptors for much longer than the 30 year old Davis.
Shawn Marion would have probably made the most sense, as a team with Vince, McGrady and Marion at the 2,3 and 4 would have been spectacularly athletic and a force to be reckoned with for the next decade.