There are many dimensions to Amir Johnson and they all reinforce our positive opinion of him. He’s the longest-serving Raptor which breeds loyalty. He loves the city and makes a public showing of it which softens our hearts. He plays through injuries which is the earmark of an athlete who wants to be respected. He’s a selfless player who feeds on scraps and doesn’t demand possessions. At the same time, when called upon to produce offense, he delivers with a surprising level of consistency. Morph all these attributes together and you get a very effective player backed by a character designed for this city. He could walk up to you as you’re walking your puppy, squash it with his giant right foot and you’d thank him for his years of great service.
There can be no debate that Amir Johnson is a player that any team hoping to contend needs. He falls in the category of glue veterans like Boris Diaw, Udonis Haslem, and Serge Ibaka, players that provide an important underpinning for a stable team. He has a multitude of positive effects when he’s on the court, including offensive rebounding, help defense, pick ‘n roll play, hi-lo action, and shot blocking. He doesn’t have a refined offensive game in the post or face-up, partially because that has never been a focus for him. Given how effective he is in other areas of the game, I sometimes question the development work the Pistons and the Raptors have performed on Johnson, because with his character, work-ethic, and the early age he came into the league, he could have been more than the peripheral offensive player that he is still viewed as.
This season confirmed how important Johnson can be to a winning team, with team being the key word. In an offense catered towards one player, Johnson’s contributions are reduced to offensive rebounding and occasional ad-hoc pick ‘n roll play, usually with the backup point guard. However, in a team-oriented offense where there is no single point of attack, he’s allowed to be more mobile and search for his offense a variety of ways: cutting down the middle, an improved spot-up jumper, two-man sequences, and early transitional post-ups. Even though his numbers across several key statistical categories were down this year (e.g., points, rebounds, eFG%), you can make an easy case that this was one of his best years as a Raptor in terms of key production and on-court leadership. The socialist Raptors offense that favors ball-movement over isolation sequences is where Johnson thrives, and it’s no surprise that when the Raptors offense turned into the DeMar DeRozan show in the playoffs, Johnson’s offense declined.
The debate of whether his contract ($6.5M last season) was deserved has been long put to rest, and he’s entering his final year at $7M. The newer question is whether he’s starter quality, and that is a complicated one to answer because it forces you to examine who else is on the floor. I’ve long maintained that Johnson is a perfect bench boost on account of his “jack of all, king of none” style, mobility, energy, and professionalism, and that if possible, a more robust and fine-tuned player is needed as a starter. In the three years prior to him being installed as a full-time starter, his offensive rating as a reserve was greater than that as a starter, which was also true this year in the five games he came off the bench. His offensive rating as a reserve over the last four years is 130, 114, 120, and 121, and as a starter it’s 120, 106, 111 and 111. Defensively, the difference is negligible. Having Johnson as a starter is perfectly acceptable as well, players like Tiago Splitter, Serge Ibaka and Kenneth Faried, who are limited offensively but provide enough variety to deserve a starting not are just three such examples.
At 27 years of age, you could very well argue that he’s approaching the prime of his career. The only counterpoint you could bring up is injury and wear-and-tear. Even though he doesn’t miss many games, he plays through knocks which ultimately take a toll on his play and long-term health. He has so far yet to average more than 30 minutes a game in a season and played a career-high 28.8 last season. A strong argument against his starting role might be the amount of backup he needs at the position, but then you see the Spurs model where nobody averages more than 30 minutes a game and that goes out the window. If the Raptors deem that the starting power forward position is Johnson’s, they’ll have to account for appropriate backup at the position because unlike players like David West, Chris Bosh and Zach Randolph, he can’t be extended in games.
In terms of development and improvement, Johnson stands to benefit from a more compact one-on-one game. He’s already very effective in two-man situations in any area on the court, and could add a dimension to his game where he can punish smaller players (like Paul Pierce in the playoffs) without having to be continually setup. His averages of 10.4 points on 56% shooting on a relatively low usage rate of 16.4% may make one wonder why the Raptors don’t involve him more in the offense, until you realize that his offense isn’t easily scalable due to limitations in his offensive game. Much like he added a new weapon with his jumper, if he’s able to add a post-move or two, it would mean his usage rate could be increased while maintaining the same levels of offensive efficiency.
I do have my doubts whether he’ll be able to progress much further as a player because, as alluded to above, he’s already been pigeonholed into a particular role by the two teams he’s played for in his career. The projection for Johnson is essentially more of the same, and the couple areas where I realistically hope that he can improve is mid-range shooting and minutes.
He shot a blistering 59% from 10-16 feet last season which was a 27% increase – a direct result of the summertime work he had put in. Approximately 9% of his shots came from that range so if he’s able to generate more offense by peeling off or stepping out, it would be something net-new to the Raptors. I’m envisioning an Ibaka-type impact where he can peel off for a baseline jumper on drives by Lowry or DeRozan. Another target for Johnson which can directly benefit the team is simply an increase in minutes. If he’s able to average around 33 minutes, that’s essentially five more minutes of excellent defense on the floor for the Raptors which you would take any day. His low rim-stoppage rate of 48% of shots is deceptive because he’s a good positional defender and can be credited with playing defense that results in a shot not even attempted which the rim-stoppage stat doesn’t quite account for.
It’s very difficult to have any qualms with Amir Johnson’s game because he’s an efficient and intelligent player that any team in the NBA would love to have on their roster. His contract is excellent, he’s great in the community, personable with the fans, and is a two-way player whose presence is felt when he’s in the game, and is severely missed when he’s out injured. All these factors make him both a great asset and also one that will have marketable trade value, and it’s on these finer points that GMs have to make tough decisions. If Masai Ujiri feels bold and senses that an upgrade to an All-Star level power forward is needed (say, Kevin Love), he could very well swing a trade with Johnson and, say, Ross and the pick as pieces. If he chooses to stay put, that in itself would be a safe move that would have the upside of continuity and Johnson entering the peak of his career, at least age-wise.
Whether he stays or goes, Amir Johnson is a valuable asset. The question for Ujiri is whether his value is greater on the market or on the court.
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