Two years ago, the Toronto Raptors lost one of the most beloved players in franchise history to free agency. After six formative years with the organization, Amir Johnson left to cash in on a well-deserved raise with the Boston Celtics. At the time, it hurt, because the fan base and organization had both grown up with Johnson, from cast-off after-thought to relevancy. At age 27, Johnson was right to sign a two-year, $24-million deal the Raptors simply couldn’t afford to match, and the parting of ways was a happy, amiable one.
On his way out, Johnson left a loving, heart-felt note:
— Amir Johnson (@IamAmirJohnson) July 2, 2015
The overwhelming response – including this from our own William Lou – was reciprocation. When Johnson wrote “see you later,” the door was very clearly open for the Raptor-headed, Zombie-walking, Young Gunz member to eventually make a return. (Where you at, Sonny Weems?) Well, it might be more realistic than these “maybe somewhere down the line when we’ve both grown up” usually are.
According to a report from Sean Deveney of Sporting News, there is “mutual interest in getting Johnson back onto the Raptors’ roster this summer.”
Now, there are a lot of dominoes that would have to fall, and a lot of specifics to sort out, before we can really make sense of this. From the Raptors’ perspective, the priority is keeping Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka, and if they do that, they can probably only offer Johnson the $5.19-million taxpayer mid-level exception. That would be a step down in salary for Johnson, who, at age 30 and with plenty of injury red tape, might want to maximize his earnings on what could be a final long-term deal. (For those tweeting that this would make sense at the veteran’s minimum, you can probably let go of that. Johnson is coming off of a $12-million salary, hasn’t had a bad season in forever, and is only just beginning the decline years of the big-man curve. Even if he takes a haircut on salary for a good situation, there will be at least a handful of teams competing to land him at a reasonable salary.) The Raptors could work their way to the mid-level exception by either moving on from one of their marquee free agents or unloading salary in a trade, but those considerations will probably be made in isolation (read: to trim the luxury tax bill) more than just to make room for Johnson.
If Johnson were to return, the Raptors would add a smart, veteran piece to a still-young frontcourt rotation, allowing Johnson to play a bit of a mentor role. He was always heralded as a terrific teammate and was a consummate member of the Toronto community, and you can never have too many of those players. Johnson remains effective, too, having started 153 games over the last two regular seasons for a quality Celtics squad. He averaged 6.9 points, 5.5 rebounds, 1.7 assists, and 0.9 blocks in 21.4 minutes in those games, shot 58 percent from the floor, and continued to flash the Summer Three (!!!) at a decent clip despite his trebuchet release. By advanced metrics (Win Shares, Box Plus-Minus, VORP, Real Plus-Minus), Johnson remained about as effective as he was in Toronto, when he earned raves as a sort of no-stats All-Star (he and Patrick Patterson can battle for that honor in this era, though Patterson has the plus-minus edge).
There are still limitations to Johnson’s game, of course. Despite missing only 24 games over the last six seasons in total, he frequently deals with knee and ankle issues. He’s probably best deployed at center defensively now, but is a below-average rebounder for that position (it should be noted that he’s continued to play well alongside another big, so this might not be a huge deal given the fluidity of positions now). He’s a supremely low-usage player, but that’s a good thing anyway, given what his role would be in Toronto and how much he’s improved as a playmaker (the answer: a lot) without losing any of his trademark efficiency (Lucas Nogueira just broke his franchise record for true-shooting percentage, and he needs to win it back). Johnson’s even remained a fairly effective rim protector, with a 3.4-percent block rate and a 47.7-percent opponent field-goal percentage at the rim when he was defending (almost identical to Nogueira’s mark from this season).
All told, Johnson remained one of the better under-the-radar impact players in the league, and the Celtics were 9.3 points per-100 possessions better with him on the floor this season. Same as it ever was with Johnson.
The complicating factors, then, become not only Johnson’s salary – he can probably command the full mid-level at least, and seek term – but what the Raptors’ frontcourt will look like next year. Jonas Valanciunas, Jakob Poeltl, Lucas Nogueira, and Pascal Siakam are all under contract, Ibaka and Patterson are unrestricted free agents, and the Raptors have moved toward playing small more often, with DeMarre Carroll or P.J. Tucker (also a free agent) seeing time at the four, too. Johnson also doesn’t fit what would appear to be the team’s biggest need (shooting), and he’d stand to eat up basically their biggest (and only) chip in adding via free agency.
Still, this is easy to get excited about. The future of Patterson is pretty murky, it’s hard to get a feel for what Tucker may do, and it seems incredibly unlikely that both Ibaka and Valanciunas will share the same roster next year. There are going to be changes, and seeing how Johnson fits at this exact snapshot in time ignores how much things may change over the next few months. He is a quality player and an excellent fit for the culture, and if the Raptors could lock him up with whatever mid-level exception they end up possessing, that’s a nice piece of business. Again, everything is kind of up in the air until the first big dominoes fall, but it’s easy to see several paths in which Johnson coming back as a flexible rotation big and veteran presence is a quality move.
And yeah, the love for Johnson maybe skews this a bit. He’s one of the most well-liked players in the history of this team, a candidate at either big-man spot in the Favorite Raptors Lineup game, and the fact that he lasted through the hard times and was around as they turned good colors things. There’s not really a problem with that, though, and having another fan-favorite to provide some energy for the Air Canada Centre can’t hurt. Plus, as outlined, Johnson is still quite good, too. Sometimes the play for the heart can also be the right basketball move.
There’s a lot still to figure out for the Raptors this summer, and where Johnson might fit is a little lower down the list. Maybe it ends up making sense around $5 million, maybe it doesn’t. There are probably more scenarios you can concoct where it’s a no than a yes, and again, there are so many big-picture questions to answer before there’s any clarity on the middle or back end of the roster. But it’s a heck of a fun rumor to close out a slow week either way. See you later.