What do you give the man who’s given everything to the city of Toronto?
Let’s hop in the time machine real quick.
It’s the summer of 2010. All eyes were fixed on unrestricted free agent Chris Bosh. Hopes were high that he would re-sign in Toronto, but sources around the league whispered the possibility of a Big Three — Bosh, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade — forming in Miami. The 2009-10 season didn’t exactly end on a positive note, as broken nose kept Bosh out of the lineup for what turned out to be a failed playoff push. But still, hopes were high.
Lost amiss all the fretting about Bosh, another Raptors power forward was also on the market, that player being Amir Johnson. At the time, Johnson was a third-big with promise but he averaged just six points and five rebounds per game. He was a darling of the analytical community having posted excellent plus-minus and advanced statistic figures, but 2010 was a slightly darker time, and “six points and five rebounds” was a damning sentence against Johnson’s case.
Therefore, it was no surprise to see the public outrage over his five-year, $30+ million extension.
“BC did it again. Over Paid a half trick pony. He is paying Amir almost 7 million a year. Wow, just wow. This is like Jose and …. all over again.” – Raptor4Ever
“This is a horrible contract …34m for Amir…i like the kid buy they overpaid…who in their right mind was going to give Amir anything close to that…so now we just added one more cap eating contract for a bench player…another good Colangelo…hope your fired soon” – Dennis
“This is the reason the raptors suck. . . Because they overpay role players. . .” – M .J
In looking back, Amir’s extension was one of former Raptors GM Bryan Colangelo’s better moves. Johnson continued to develop and easily shed the label of being “just a bench player.” Four years into the deal, Johnson has produced 23.2 win shares, tops among all Raptors players over that time. Based on his on-court performance, the deal was nothing short of a steal — that’s to say nothing of his tremendous commitment to the Greater Toronto Area, either.
But the free ride is soon coming to an end. Johnson only has one year left on his contract for 2014-15 — a club option for $7 million — which puts current Raptors GM Masai Ujiri in a bind. What’s a fair price for a soldier like Johnson?
Fair is the operative word. While contract negotiations between teams and players are oftentimes a zero-sum game, there’s something to be said for loyalty and team culture. No other player — other than perhaps DeMar DeRozan — has embodied the best of what the Raptors organization represents. That should play a factor in negotiations. It has to be a good deal for both the Raptors and Johnson.
At this point, there shouldn’t be a need to review what a player like Johnson brings to the team. He’s the team’s defensive anchor, the rare power forward who excels on defense. He’s not a Roy Hibbert-type rim-protector, and he isn’t quite a flying pterodactyl like Anthony Davis — Johnson is simply smart and always in the right spot to provide help or challenge shots. In a season wherein he battled various ailments, Johnson still managed to post the sixth-highest defensive real plus-minus among power forwards who played over 20 minutes per game.
His contributions on offense aren’t to be overlooked either. I’d like to think that we’re out of the dark woods of yesteryear, where “six points, five rebounds” was the definitive statement on Johnson’s performance, because almost every “advanced” metric paint a rosy picture for Johnson. True-shooting percentage? Amir’s career figure is .603. Finishing in the pick-and-roll? Johnson consistently scores well in synergy data. Even the little things like setting screens or playing the two-man game with DeRozan — Johnson is much more than his per-game averages.
But even having said all that, Johnson isn’t an All-Star. He not on the same level as Blake Griffin, Tim Duncan, Dirk Nowitzki, Kevin Love or LaMarcus Aldridge — not even close. He’s at the bottom of the second tier, that which is populated by the likes of Serge Ibaka (who is one step removed from the top tier), Paul Millsap, David West, Greg Monroe, David Lee and Nene. He can neither anchor an offense, nor a defense, on his own.
His age and propensity for injuries is also something to consider. Johnson was the last player ever to go straight from high school to the pros, meaning he’s old for a 27-year-old. If his loses his quickness and mobility due to age, it’s reasonable to question whether or not he can remain as effective on defense. Johnson also runs into more than his fair share of minor injuries — at no time were Johnson’s ankles not sprained last year — though he selflessly plays though them. Can he still endure the pain as his career trails into his thirties?
So the question remains — how much should Ujiri pay to retain Johnson?
The most that Johnson could sign for right now is a three-year extension worth just over $24 million. Such a deal would carry through to age-30 for Johnson, which would effectively serve as his last chance at a big paycheck.
Personally, I would be entirely on board with paying Johnson between seven and eight million per year for the next three seasons. Even if his game ages and he never manages to play more than 30 minutes per game (something he hasn’t yet done for an entire season), Johnson’s skills shouldn’t entirely evaporate with age — he’s not Amar’e Stoudemire, for example.
But will $24 million be enough to rope in Johnson? Half the league is set to have significant cap space next season, and the possibility exists for a team offering Johnson an eight figure per-year deal to buyout the remainder of his prime. Jordan Hill, a worse player on all accounts, received a two-year, $18 million deal this summer.
There’s the Raptors’ cap flexibility to consider as well. Locking up Johnson long term reduces their wiggle room for 2016-17 — the prodigal summer of Kevin Durant’s free-agency — which also happens to be when Jonas Valanciunas and Terrence Ross are slated for extensions. That’s also the year DeRozan can opt out of his $10 million deal — and he will absolutely opt out in hopes for a raise — meaning the Raptors’ $18 million in committed salary for 2016-17 is more restrictive than it would appear on the surface.
And finally, there’s a new CBA looming on the horizon. With the NBA set to sign a new TV rights deal worth nearly double their current figure, the cap will almost surely skyrocket. Salary figures are relative so it’s hard to gauge value without knowledge of the financial minutiae of the new CBA.
So what say you? What’s a fair deal for Amir Johnson and the Toronto Raptors?