I felt like writing about two things today: How much I miss Amir Johnson being in the Toronto Raptors’ lineup, and how disappointed I’ve been with the Raptors’ play of late, despite the fact that they’ve won four straight, seven of eight and nine of 12, with shorthanded wins against Houston and Indiana in that span. Turns out, Johnon’s absence and the team playing below standards are related.

Now, I fully realize that complaining about a team’s play during a winning stretch – especially at the tail end of one of the franchise’s best regular seasons ever – may seem overreactive. It’s the basketball version of First World Problems or some other offensive hashtag trending to shame us all for whining about generally meaningless problems. Still, there are concering signs right now, and with the focus changing from appreciating the season that’s been to how it can become the postseason that was, it’s worth worrying about.

We’ll focus on the last nine games, in particular, narrowing in on the last four games. Prior to this nine-game stretch, the Raptors had a solid win against the Hawks, a double-overtime loss to the Thunder, and a mediocre three-game stretch against the Suns, Hawks and Pelicans. The four-game stretch also leaves out the Miami loss and focuses only on wins. That is, this isn’t a cutoff selected simply to highlight a point, because the team wasn’t exactly peaking to that point (they weren’t struggling either, but they’re also not struggling now).

Have a look at how the performance has changed:

Raptors Since Dec. 8, All Games Last Nine Last Four
Record 40-20 7-2 4-0
O-Rating 107.1 109.8 114.7
D-Rating 102 107.2 106.3
Net Rating 5.1 2.7 8.4
Home/Road 30/30 5/4 1/3
Strength of Opp. 0.48 0.41 0.44

While the wins have still been coming, the nine-game stretch shows they’ve been far less impressive, with the team’s victory margins shrinking against a relatively weak stretch of schedule. The offense has still been humming, which is impressive considering that Kyle Lowry missed time and Indiana was on the slate.

But the defense, woof. They gave up 103 points to a Rockets team without Dwight Howard and Patrick Beverley and mostly without Terrence Jones, gave up 94 to a struggling Pacers offense, and then gave up 98 and 114 to the league’s two worst teams, Milwaukee and Philadelphia, respectively. Pace plays a part in there, sure, but the team’s defensive rating – which accounts for pace – has dropped from a top-eight mark overall to a bottom-five mark over the last nine games. And again, look at the strength of schedule in that time, and keep in mind that it’s likely inflated given the realities facing Houston and Indiana when the Raptors matched up with them.

Part of this struggle could simply be late-season malaise. The team is assured of a playoff spot, they’re fairly likely to have home-court advantage, and their top players have endured quite a workload. It’s completely possible they’ve noticed the incredibly easy stretch to end the season – once looked at as a possible advantage – and taken their foot off the gas. That wouldn’t be an issue if this were, say, Miami, who have shown an ability to “flip the switch” when necessary. But the risk right now is that the Raptors could be entering the postseason playing somewhere below their best basketball.

But they’ve also played some of these games without Kyle Lowry and Amir Johnson, two of their three best players, maybe even their two best players, full stop. Lowry has gotten plenty of love for how well he’s played this year, and deservedly so, but it seems as if Johnson has once again slid into being underrated, at least by some.

He’s averaging a career-high 10.7 points on 56.2 percent shooting, which is obviously great, but many have pointed to how banged-up he’s looked at times (which is why I’ve suggested over and over the team give him as much time to rest his ankle as necessary). His rebounding and shot-blocking rates are down, his player efficnecy rating is only slightly above-average, and the emergence of Patrick Patterson has led some to broach the idea that maybe 2-Pat should be starting at the four (Tyler Hansbrough started over Johnson for four games earlier in the season, too).

Not to further my reputation as an unabashed Amir apologist, but don’t let that last paragraph fool you: he has been very good, banged up or not, and continues to be one of the team’s most important pieces. The role he plays is not one that stands out with conventional numbers, as most are surely aware by now – setting some of the best screens in the NBA, providing help defense, the ability to switch out onto guards in the pick-and-roll or handle the opposing team’s best non-guard, these are all immensely valuable but generally immeasurable.

There are some numbers that can help show his impact, though they can get complicated or messy. To wit:

*Of all Raptors lineups that have played at least 10 minutes together, Johnson appears in four of the top five in terms of net rating. If that time constraint is upped to 20 minutes, Johnson appears in three of the top five and six of the top eight.

*When Johnson is on the floor, the Raptors outscore opponents by 4.3 points per 100 possessions (PPC), compared to 2.8 when he’s off the floor. That continues a trend that’s been apparent for Johnson’s entire career, as his teams have performed 2.6 PPC better with him on the floor.

*Using ESPN’s new Real Plus-Minus statistic (don’t be scared, the math is difficult but it matches up fairly well with conventional wisdom/the eye-test), Johnson has been the league’s 12th most valuable player per possession this season, adding 4.84 PPC over a replacement player. The fact that he’s played slightly fewer minutes than other top names pushes him all the way down to 17th in total value, showing him as worth 9.19 wins over a replacement player.

*Like with on/off-court numbers, this extends back years – Regularized Adjusted Plus-Minus (RAPM) over 14 years shows that Johnson has been the league’s eighth-best player since 2001 in terms of impact on his teams, ranking 79th in offensive impact and 13th in defensive impact, improving his teams by 5.8 PPC (over 40,722 possessions, which is pretty crazy, though if you think that’s a lot, consider that Dirk Nowitzki has played 143,773 possessions in that time).

I get that numbers aren’t everyone’s thing, and some will just snark in the comments at nerds loving Johnson and why that doesn’t match up with real life. That’s fine, you’re welcome to do that.

But it’s also not really a surprise, if you’ve been watching, that the Raptors are surrendering 32.8 looks a game in the restrcited area over the past four outings (Johnson played just three minutes in that stretch), compared to 26.3 before Johnson went down. The teams they played in those games? They rank first, fourth, 20th and 27th in restricted area shots, so it’s not just a case of sample bias. Opponents shoot just 47.8 percent at the rim when Johnson is guarding them, per NBA.com/stats, 19th best among qualified players, the same mark Howard allows.

There’s a great volume of evidence building that shows that Johnson is one of the most valuable assets in the NBA. Just because he’s not the traditional scoring four that some want, or a beast on the glass, doesn’t mean he’s not very, very good. Many Raptor fans already know an embrace this, others don’t.

Johnson’s return isn’t, on its own, enough to make me think the recent blip on the defensive end will just disappear, but he’s a really important part of what the team does on that end for about 30 minutes a night, and he’s definitely going to help a great deal. He allows guards to be more aggressive with their primary coverage, gives Dwane Casey more freedom in determining who and when to switch on pick-and-rolls, and, by being the primary rim protector, can lessen the defensive load on Jonas Valanciunas (which is suddenly important given how well he’s played offensively).

The team has to hope he returns at 100 percent, and that his presence helps push the defense back to being firmly a top-10 unit with Johnson as the anchor. Even at less than 100 percent, though, as he’s been for most of the year, Johnson brings immense value.

  • elbow

    I think anybody that watches knows what he means to the team. I hope he comes back healthy, he’s earned this just as much as anyone else on the team.

  • GLF

    I have been saying on the forums that our defense has fallen off for a little while now. Yes Amir being out has made it that much worse but it was bad long before Amir has been out. We been continuing to win games because the teams we’ve been playing are crappy but I’m more worried about this following us into the postseason. With their veterans I know Brooklyn can probably turn in on when they want but I don’t know if we can. Charlotte has also been playing very good defense. So we really need to step it up or hope that they can turn it on come playoff time.

    • jjdynomite

      I didn’t know Houston and Indiana are “crappy” teams.

      As well, Amir has been playing injured for the past month or so, so there’s a pretty good reason why the Raptors’ defence has fallen off — even before he started missing actual games.

  • bizzy

    I think some people here seriously overvalue amir as a player. From what I see is an undersized big with limited offensive capabilities, poor handles, and who makes silly fouls time in and time out. He reminds me a lot of jyd who I adored cuz of his hustle and love for the city but understood he was an average player at best. I think amir is gonna have to fight to get his starting position back the way 2 pat is playing now just like handsborough did hopefully bringing a spark for defense off the bench.

    • mike, prague

      Only thing Amir is gonna be fighting is his ankle.

    • Roarque

      Most of Amir’s silly fouls this season were the direct result of trying to provide support to DDR and JV after they screwed up their defensive assignment.
      Amir’s offensive contributions are proving the screens and the hand offs that DDR uses to contribute his excellent scoring numbers. Without Amir, DDR is much less efficient because he doesn’t get the same open looks.

    • Mexiballer

      You either dont watch all the Raptor games or you dont understand this team. Amir is key. And he wont have to fight for his starting position when he returns. He will be inserted right back in the lineup. Thats a certainty.

      • bizzy

        Nah I do I just think u guys give him too much credit. I’ve seen plenty of games this season which were lost partly because of his offensive struggles, silly fouls and turnovers. We would be nowhere at this point without the improved play of Lowry, derozan and the sac town boys those guys are key and the reason were winning so many games.

        • stooley

          ESPN’s new metric ranks Amir as one of the most effective players in the league. He’s also widely praised for his picks, at which he’s also one of the best in the league.

          • bizzy

            There’s a lot of holes in the new metric ranks and a lot of people still don’t know how it works. Jae crowder is ranked 9th in that stat coming off the bench for the mavs second unit and has very little to do with how good that second unit is.

        • jjdynomite

          Amir is averaging 1.6 TOs per game, which is quite low, and .562 FG%, which is incredibly high for someone with “offensive struggles”. But I guess he doesn’t pass your “eye test”.

          • bizzy

            Its kinda hard to shoot a low percentage when the majority of your shots are within 1 foot close to the net. Offensively as a team the raps don’t look as good with him out there, I cringe whenever I see him shoot a midrange j, his ridiculously slow release. I give props to his defense and his screens but as a complete package I just think Patterson is better.

    • GetLicks

      Go watch tape of him defending Nowitzki, Love & Durant. I guarantee (if you know your bball) you’ll never put ‘Amir’ and ‘overvalue’ in the same sentence again.

      • bizzy

        http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xEuu3NmF400
        I noticed you didn’t put duncan up there lol. All kidding aside i just think patterson is the better power forward and deserves more minutes. He basically can do everything amir can do with more offensive tools. I understand the raps defense is kinda non-existent atm but amir is not the sole answer to the raps defensive woes. They have to come together collectively as a TEAM for better defence against there opponents.

        • GetLicks

          Lol. You have to understand something, we need Amir’s D in the starting unit going up against the top bigs in the league. Not only is he our best man defender, he’s our best help defender and he’s efficient on the other end. Does all of that AND makes all the hustle/little plays, which is why so many fans love him. We have enough scoring and shooters in the starting unit, the bench needs Patterson for spacing and cause he can hit an open jumpshot. Pat has been a great 6th man and should stay I’m that role

          • GetLicks

            In that role**

    • Paul

      Nice troll job buddy.

      • bizzy

        I’m actually not trolling, I don’t hate the guy, I just don’t think he’s as great as you guys think he is. If he comes back tommorow great, with his hustle d tommorow we’ll be a cakewalk. Anyways I’m done with this I’m gonna go watch some suits, Oh yeah and f the knicks, they gon get lit up!!!

  • Robin

    According to your ESPN reference for valuing MVP per possession, #2 on the Raps would be Lowry which makes perfect sense, but then #3 is Steve Novak followed by Landry Fields who is basically tied for #4 with Patrick Patterson …at this point I’ve kinda lost interest in your argument.

    • DDayLewis

      Right, because Blake’s ENTIRE point is based on one metric, but thanks for leaving a thought on your apathy towards the matter.

    • BlakeMurphy

      Are you serious? “MY” ESPN reference? It’s theirs, not mine. It was one of like a half dozen points I made. I also said exactly this: “I get that numbers aren’t everyone’s thing, and some will just snark in the comments at nerds loving Johnson and why that doesn’t match up with real life. That’s fine, you’re welcome to do that.” So yeah…not sure what else to tell you.

      • Paul

        You are the one referencing it. Therefore it is your reference, technically.
        You’re welcome for this annoying semantic point!

    • Feather Ruffler

      What a douche bag comment

  • asifyouknow

    Very interesting Mr. Murphy, just a question, could it be that every year towards the end of the season NBA teams are more offensive oriented.
    It takes lots more energy to play defense than it does offense. Maybe the guys are not in the same page as their coach and aren’t playing as hard so they can get themselves rested for the playoffs.
    Casey apparently does not believe in rest or injuries. He keeps telling us that is ok to play hurt because everybody is nicked up.
    Casey just keeps surprising me. He took his horses most of the season and beat them to the ground by playing them close to 40 minutes a night . He gets the key to his season, Kyle Lowry, back after a great rest and starts to pound him again with 40 minutes, DeMar 40 and on and on.
    He gave the bench that bailed his ass out this season a vote of ZERO confidence last night, right before the playoffs, by given them chump minutes.
    This guys are so good together and so unselfish that Mickey Mouse could coach this team to a winning record.
    This team wins despite Casey not totally because of him.
    Just an NBA fans opinion.

    • CJT

      Are you speaking of the bench that gave up a 14 point lead in about 6 minutes? I would say that Casey had good reason to cut their minutes last night.

      • asifyouknow

        YES! That very one! You know the one that is the main reason why he still got a job in the NBA ! ….That very same one….. Just want it to be clear…lol

    • ron simmonds

      yeah well mickey mouse is a fictional character so actually mickey mouse could not coach this team to a winning record. your point is moot. god bless the queen

      • asifyouknow

        lol

  • feylines

    i took a screenshot of that RAPM chart with only raptors players of interest selected: http://imgur.com/rPRbSEA chucky!!

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