Ed’s Note: Once again, please welcome Tamberlyn Richardson for her second piece on RR. In case you missed the first, here it is.

On this Christmas Day and following arguably the best consecutive road victories in 12 years I find myself buoyed by the Raptors play this past week and couldn’t help but see the correlation of a classic Holiday Movie: A Miracle on 34th Street, to their current juxtaposition.

The movie is about a man hired to replace the drunken Macy’s Santa Claus. This replacement claims to be the real Kris Kringle which leads to his being institutionalized.

His sanity is disputed in court where people testify there is something special about this man who succeeds in improbable ways; focusing on spirit and faith amidst rampant negativity, commercialism and skepticism.  Ultimately Santa is released when it’s proven people still believe.

Granted my analogy is a bit far fetched but it parallels those who believe blowing up the Raptors, specifically our core unit and players who can’t be easily replaced to gain one unproven, albeit talented draft pick would result in our immediate ascent. Obviously our greatest return would come via trading Johnson, but my feelings are he’s possibly the most important piece of the puzzle to retain.

To that end, let’s fully evaluate Amir’s importance to the future of the Raptors:

Field Goal Percentage:

Stats through 25 games have Amir ranking third in the league with 60.8% behind DeAndre Jordan (64.5%) and Andre Drummond (61.9%). Of these top three, Amir is head and shoulders above his counterparts at the line, shooting 76% and is more capable at hitting shots outside the paint including the occasional three pointer. Though we don’t want to see him shooting too many three’s, a sprinkling of it keeps defenses honest and since the trade he’s shooting it with 50% accuracy.

Player Efficiency Rating:

PER rates a player’s positive accomplishments, subtracts the negative and returns a per-minute rating of a player’s performance. Johnson is the highest ranked Raptor with a 18.1 PER, ranking 52 in the NBA literally just behind Roy HIbbert and ahead of quality players like Kawhi Leonard and Serge Ibaka.

Factor in, the above includes pre trade data, 18 games vs. 2012/13 playoff teams and 12 games vs the more successful West. When you consider 37 of our remaining 56 games are against the East with 10 vs our underperforming division rivals it bodes well for Amir’s numbers climbing.

Post Trade Numbers:

The following chart outlines Amir’s performance since the trade; suffice to say his numbers and touches have increased due to better ball movement, more pick and roll designed sets and obviously the trade wipes out the ball sticking with Rudy Gay eating up clock on isolation plays.

Team

Hm/Rd

FG

M/A

3Pt

M/A

FT

M/A

+/-

Off R

Def R

Tot R

Ast

Stl

Blk

Pts

LAL

Road

WIN

14-17

82%

TH

0-1

4-4

100%

+22

TH

4

TH

6

TH

10

TH

1

2

2

TTH

32

TH

SAS

Home

LOSS

9-11

81.8%

0-1

1-2

50%

-2

3

TTH

6

TTH

9

TH

0

0

1

19

TTH

Philly

Home

WIN

8-11

72.7%

1-1

0-0

+19

1

9

10

1

1

2

TH

17

CHI

Road

WIN

6-11

55%

0-0

2-3

66.6%

+13

2

TTH

6

8

3

0

2

14

CHAR

Home

Loss OT

5-9

55.5%

0-0

0-0

-9

6

TH

7

TH

13

TH

4

2

1

TTH

10

DAL

Road

WIN OT

5-8

62.5%

1-2

50%

4-6

66.6%

TH

+11

TH

2

4

6

0

3

TH

0

15

OKC

Road

WIN

7-11

63.6%

1-1

100%

2-2

100%

+21

5

TH

8

TH

13

TH

1

1

0

17

SAS

Road

LOSS

3-7

42.8%

0-0

1-2

50%

-10

2

6

TTH

8

0

0

2

7

Totals:

5-3

57-85

67%

3-6

50%

14-19

73.6%

+8.125

avg

over

8 gms

25

3.125 OPG

52

6.5

DPG

77

9.63

RPG

10

1.25

APG

9

1.13

SPG

10

1.25

BPG

131

16.4

PPG

Legend:  Mins =  Minutes Played, FG =Field Goals ,M/A= Made/Attempted, +/- =Plus/Minus when on court, Off R = Offensive Rebounds, Def R = Defensive Rebounds, Tot R = Total Rebounds, Ast = Assists, Stl = Steals, Blk= Blocks, Pts = Points, TH = Team High, TTH = Tied Team High

Amir’s Role In Two Huge Road Wins:

Isolating the past two wins Lowry, Salmons and DeRozan were all key contributors but it was Amir who made the most crucial plays at key moments to seal the wins.

In Dallas, Amir drew the unenviable assignment of guarding Dirk Nowitzki and did a decent job, especially late in regulation (stopping Dirk on the last possession) and in overtime.johnson-contesting-ibaka

In the extra frame, Johnson scored two points, saved a stray pass that lead to a JV score, assisted on the go ahead score and defended Dallas’ last shot by Ellis when he pushed him wide of his driving lane, got his hands on the rebound and tipped it, before falling to the ground on top of it as time ran out.

Sunday night’s upset of OKC had an even greater Johnson imprint on the win. The Raptors led most of the game but it was inevitable the league’s best team would make a run. Not coincidentally this occurred while Amir was on the bench due to foul trouble. When Amir left the game Toronto was up 67-60;  by the time he returned at the start of the fourth OKC had gone on a 24-4 run to take a 84-71 lead.

What is most impressive is Amir along spent the better portion of this game guarding Kevin Durant, the league’s best scorer and held him to 24 points; 12 of which came at the line. While Amir sat in the third, Durant scored 5 points from the field, an additional four at the line and got 3 of his 8 rebounds. So KD literally only scored 7 points against Amir’s defense.

Amir scored 6 of his 17 points and nabbed 4 of his 13 rebounds in the fourth quarter but it was a broken play where Amir dove on a loose ball and called timeout that allowed the Raps to cement the win, becoming the first team this season to take a game on OKC’s home court and subsequently halt their nine game win streak.

Veteran leadership:

By now, those of you hoping for a tanked season are likely noting I’ve proven why Amir should be traded, however when you factor in the intangibles, I believe it becomes clearer why Amir should be one of the untouchables, even if Michael Jordan chooses to return to the game!

Incredibly since 1984 only eight different teams have won the Larry O’Brien Trophy and of those, only Dallas didn’t achieve multiple wins. Perhaps ridding themselves of key vets like Tyson Chandler and Jason Terry contributed to this. On the opposite end of the spectrum youthful teams looking to rise up the ranks saw improvements as soon as a key vet was added to their roster. OKC notably did so with the addition of Kendrick Perkins who had won a championship in Boston. Last season, Golden State and New York both benefited from the additions of Jack and Kidd and now that they are no longer on their respective teams one could point to their absence as part of the reason why these teams are underperforming.

Which brings me to Amir; consider this staggering fact; Amir Johnson was the last high school player ever drafted before the league mandated at least one season in college. John Salmons at 34 is in his twelfth season but Amir who is 8 years his junior is already in his NINTH year. Each and every year Amir has improved his game and plays like a wily veteran already so moving forward his presence on the team while still being able to contribute athletically is huge, especially in today’s game which more than ever seems to be trending toward players joining the NBA after only one year in college.

Valanciunas who is earmarked as the future has only ever had one partner in the front court (Amir) so while he grows with minutes on the floor and exposure to critical in-game situations, removing the only partner he’s truly ever worked beside could very well stall his progress or even set him back.

Toronto’s Ambassador:

Whether Wiggins arrives in Toronto this year of when he becomes free to sign with us, we have in Amir something we’ve never truly had before which is a quality player who loves the city and wants to remain here. His excitement regarding the 2016 All Star Game coming north of the border and his desire to try to make the All Star Team speak to his commitment to remain a Raptor.  After years of hearing players like Bosh state how our city “smelled weird” or seeing players like McGrady and Carter run at first opportunity, having someone of his ilk want to remain is refreshing and beneficial to the franchise’s brand image.

Adding Playoff Experience:

No greater learning can be achieved then the actual experience of playing into May and June. If we are to move forward as a franchise, getting a top seed and moving into a second round series would benefit every single player on the current squad but especially the core starting five. I recognize I may be out on my own with this perspective but I recall the last time Toronto made the playoffs, we were Atlantic Division Champions, however every analyst picked New Jersey to win simply because we had no experience. In the end, they were right; it’s a catch 22; you need to win to get there but you need to lose to experience the true passion and drive it takes to go farther. Indiana and OKC have both experienced this deep loss and look at them now. Simply throwing in the towel because the East sucks this year won’t make the Raptors any wiser or seasoned next year. No, they need to experience the thrill of winning a playoff game and the anguish of suffering a loss to grow.

amir-johnson-young

AMIRacles Can Happen:

Revisiting the theme of A Miracle of 34th Street lets just say my hopes are the disenchanted fans can see how  its highly possible The Raptors will not only make the playoffs this season but as a top four seed having won the division.

Further, I have faith Ujiri will continue to weed out unproductive players who don’t fit the new team mantra of no quit, tough mindedness and still be able to get his hands on some draft picks to package for a quality high pick along the way.

Ultimately, Amir represents everything that is right with the Raptors and maybe its just because I’m feeling sentimental, it being Christmas and all but I think the Raptors are way ahead of the game in one respect; we already know who the heart and soul of our team is: Amir Johnson.

Wishing you and yours a very happy holiday and for you Raptor Fanatics, sending my wishes for two gift wrapped wins vs New York to close out December.

Tipping off to an NBA event filled Christmas Day.

  • Pele
  • http://peterd.mp Beagle17

    I think Ujiri feels the same as you about playoff experience. I think he’s aiming for the Atlantic Division title now, not a tank. The point you make about OKC and Indiana having benefited from playoff losses is very astute. And MU might find us a great player with our pick regardless of the draft order. That’s what good GMs do.

    • ac1011990

      Good GM’s make sure the future is looking good instead of sacrificing the future for the now. The difference between OKC and Indiana’s playoff experiences were that OKC had Durant, Westbrook and Harden. Indiana has George, Hibbert and Hill. When you have a good foundation and a good core already set up then playoff experience is really important. We have a decent core but we are a good piece away from playoff experience being beneficiary, what good did the bucks experience do for them last year?

      • ItsAboutFun

        The Bucks are such a stupid analogy that people keep using to support their narrative. Why?

        1. The Raptors are simply a better team, with more and better young pieces under development.
        2. Getting playoff experience doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Take a look at the Bucks’ roster now compared to last year. Jennings gone, Ellis gone, Tobias Harris gone, Reddick gone, Dalembert, Udrih, Dunleavy all gone. The team is entirely different this year.

        The suggested idea behind playoff experience for the Raps is giving an entire starting lineup, which just happens to be very young, and starting to mesh together very nicely, valuable experience. And if you’re going to use Indiana as a comparison, note that they had not seen the playoffs in 4 years, when they squeaked in as 81th seed in 2010-11, with a 37-45 record.
        – It was Hibbert’s 3rd year
        – George Hill wasn’t with them yet
        – Paul George was a rookie, that NOBODY was close to suggesting was a franchise player, picked at #10

        They got blown out 4-1 in the first round. Based on the tankers’ narrative, all indications of a treadmill team. They don’t decide to tank, but go out and get David West via free agency. That year with nobody yet seeing George as a “franchise player”, they finish 3rd seed, beat Orlando (meh) in the first round, Then the Heat use them as warm-up in the 2nd round. Then last year, with 2 years of playoff experience for Paul George, Roy Hibbert, et al, they push Miami to the limit. See the progression there? No picks higher than 10, and they didn’t need to tank for years to chase fantasies.

        • TheSpiceTyrant

          Precisely.

        • ac1011990

          What about OKC? Without 3 high picks they would be a laughing stock. Il give you Indiana, but they did sort of get lucky with Paul George and Hibbert. You rarely find a defensive stud of a center at 55, but Paul George’s main concern was his shooting. People knew he was a good rebounder and a good defensive player, they also knew he was a good ball handler and passer. His bust potential was high, but on the other hand his ceiling was pretty high as well. Sort of like Drummond, teams passed on Drummond because he had a huge chance of becoming a bust, but everyone has seen how that turned out. Indiana’s situation has more to do with the luck of both those players turning out really really good. If your hoping that anyone on our team is going to have as big impact as Paul or Hibbert then id rather take the odds of going into the lottery. Last years bucks decided that playoffs were more important then trying to accumulate talent. They got rid of Tobias Harris, a guy with potential to get a rental player in Reddick. They have some quality pieces in Henson, and Sanders and recently added Giannis, but its obvious that that 4 game series did nothing for them. You go into the playoffs when you have a competitive team. We have seen this hot streak happen year after year, have we not? This team does not have an elite player, we have a good trio already but nobody who can take us over the top. Id rather try to get a player from one of the best draft classes in recent years then get to the playoffs due to the horrendous play of the eastern conference.

          • Tamberlyn Richardson

            The point I’m trying to make in the article (this week & last week)
            is you can do both; get a high draft pick AND gain playoff experience.
            Looking at how well Masai has done at ridding the Raptors of unwanted
            contracts coupled with the “type” of player he has drafted it speaks to
            his prowess as a GM.

            Looking around the league there are certain
            players who have ice in their veins like a Westbrook & most
            recently Lillard for example, who don’t get hurt (often at least). Ujiri has
            shown a propensity for spotting mentally and physically tough players
            and definitely demonstrated the ability to create/get a deal done.

            My position is: gain the
            experience, maintain your core & depth and then work the
            trades/deals to package pieces to garner a top draft.

            Ultimately Wiggins will end up in Toronto whether this year or 5 years from now (in my opinion).

            P.S. I can’t believe no one commented on a Tattoo free Amir & how young he looks in that pic I found.

            • ac1011990

              First off id like to say great job on both your articles, i enjoyed both of them. But I guess where we differ is on the timings of the trades and deals. Lowry has pretty high value right now and if you don’t maximize the value for him you risk losing him for nothing. I’m not to sure hes going to resign here, so that would be my first priority. Also getting Lowry out would lower this teams ceiling significantly, putting us in good position to get a higher pick. I’m not really a fan of getting rid of either of Derozan, Ross or Valanciunas. This years draft picks are going to be extremely protected, we need our own pick to be fairly high to even have a chance of trading up. If we receive a pick for Lowry similar to the one offered by NY (2018) a package of our pick, New York’s 2016 and a future first round would be a tempting offer. Obviously if we get out of the top 10 our 2014 pick looks less tempting. I realize that the possibility of Wiggins in a Raptors uniform is pretty high, but why do we have to wait for possible 8 years. If this team was an up and coming team like the blazers then yes there isnt a need to tank, but we have seen this streak many times before and its harmed our draft stock multiple times. This team has not gone through a proper rebuild, and honestly as this team is constructed we don’t need a full blown rebuild, but we do need to do it right for at least a year.

              • Tamberlyn Richardson

                Thanks so much for the compliment.

                I completely understand your timing comments. Personally I can’t see Masai trading Lowry to either New York team (Knicks/Nets) b/c there is no number one pick to be had AND it makes either of those team better next year.

                I also understand your point regarding value at it’s max, i.e. Kyle is playing so well right now. BUT I think I see this situation quite differently:

                1) Kyle came to us healing from injury (I think even surgery) last season & never truly got going. This season he arrived healthy

                2) As much as Rudy may be Kyle’s sons godfather I think Rudy actually hurt Kyle’s game more than any other player on the team. Case in point his scoring is up but so are his assists since Gay left.

                3) The greatest intangible about Kyle is his WILL TO WIN; looking around the league there aren’t a ton of players I’d coin as bull dogs but Kyle is one of them. Time and again this year we’ve seen Kyle at a pivotal point in a game; stop a team from getting back into it, keep Raptors in game or push us over the top. We’ve also seen him get critical rebounds he has no business getting. Would I put him on Lillard or Westbrooks level ummm NO but I’d say he is just below that level which is what we want from him so that we develop a “team mentality”.

                4) I know Vasquez will grow into a better guard and still needs to get his timing down with the new Raptors around him but I like having 2 quality guards like OKC and Phoenix do.

                As for your thoughts Kyle won’t resign I could be wrong but I think he will if Masai offers him the deal. The reason is Lowry has been with Houston and Memphis previously and NEVER got to fully run the team like he is here. He could go to an under performing team again and languish in mediocrity however given Kyle’s competitiveness I think he’d rather be the MAN on the Raps especially if he believes they can win, so I say he’ll resign given the choice. Only way I see him leave is to return home to Philly but then they’d have to trade Michael Carter-Williams; NOT HAPPENING.

                There’s still a lot of season to be played so Masai will definitely revisit this as
                the season progresses and definitely before the deadline. We can be sure of one thing, Ujiri will do what is necessary to improve the team; he likes depth, toughness and youth so bear that in mind.

                Ultimately we need to remember one very important thing though (and this may be a tip of the hat b/c I’m mulling this over as my next article) CHEMISTRY is a tricky thing. When you achieve quality chemistry it’s best not to mess too much with it b/c chemistry will outweigh “on paper talent” every time. All you need to do is look at Phoenix, Atlanta and Portland to see the results of chemistry.

                I agree we still need ONE STAR PLAYER, ideally a quality 3 which could be Wiggins now or later, or perhaps Ross continues to grow and becomes that person. Looking at the draft if Raptors get to select any of the top 4 then one of our starters either becomes disposable or will have to move to the bench: Wiggins – Ross, Parker – DeRozan, Randal/Gordon- Amir, Imbiid – Valanciunas.

                Getting a pick any higher than four means you are taking a shot at MAYBE; note: Bosh was a 4 pick & WASN’T a FRANCHISE CHANGING STAR rather a great player who is a solid number two option or 1/2 punch with ANOTHER All Star. So once you get past the first 4 picks you are still adding quality but not necessarily a franchise changing player.

                We’ve seen this year how important a good point guard is to the success of our team (or any for that matter) and how poorly a team can do without a decent back-up. So, I tend to think Masai truly will play a wait & see game regarding Kyle.

                Time will tell. Thanks again for your insight & comments and the opportunity to debate the Raptors options. Have a wonderful holiday.

          • ItsAboutFun

            “but its obvious that that 4 game series did nothing for them.”

            You’re bringing other things into the discussion, but I was responding to your “playoff experience” thing. You’re right, it did nothing for the Bucks,,,,,, ummmm,,, because the idea is getting experience for the guys your moving forward with,,, not getting the experience, then blowing it all up.

            • ac1011990

              They blew it up because they knew it couldn’t be sustained or lead to different results. That’s the thing fans believe there teams are better then what they are. The goal of every team is to win a championship, at the very least be a competitive team in your own conference. Can you honestly say this team can every compete with the Heat and the Pacers over a season? Unless your happy with with a playoff team then this convo is useless, I have bigger dreams for this team.

    • bryan colangelo

      I don’t think the Ujiri’s goal is to turn this team into playoff contender, or to tank. I think his plan is to simply make the best trades he can. I think he realizes that at this point trying to tank, and/or securing a high draft pick through trades, is just as wistful and fantastical as trying to win a title this year.

      What Tank Nation seems to continually ignore is the competition for a high draft pick is very, very high this year. The teams that are already in prime position are not giving up their picks. You would have to trade at a negative return to even have a chance. People are floating around delusional ideas like trading Demar for a high pick. Yeah, right. Maybe Demar and Amir plus taking on some horrible contracts might get you one pick in the top 8 this year. Maybe. And what are you left with? A terrible team, no valuable assets and if you’re lucky, a chance at a good player.

      The team’s recent success allows Ujiri to keep playing his cards close to his chest, and not trade out of desperation. I think he realizes that. Unless someone comes out of the woodworks and makes an offer he can’t refuse, he’s better off playing this season out, letting contracts expire, and/or trying to attain future draft picks or prospects closer to the trading deadline.

      People think tanking is easy, and normally it is. Not this year. Honestly, the team is better off trying to pry future picks off people this year at a decent cost than having a fire sale, getting horrible value in return and trying to race to the bottom — a race where five or six other teams already have a head start.

  • dc

    Good column. Recent positivity on RR is appreciated and, I think, appropriate – considering the team is showing this mentality!

  • TheSpiceTyrant

    It’s easy to love Amir but the claim that he’s been the only Raptor to embrace this city… Well I’m not buying that. Maybe not the top tier players but we’ve had a few great guys who loved it in the Tdot

  • mike, prague

    Admit it. You also tried clicking on the video of Amir being interviewed as a Piston.

  • asifyouknow

    I have a feeling the Knicks and Toronto will get something done this eek end. just got a feeling…

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