The Price of Everything, The Value of Nothing

Treasure chest

I am well aware this post has very little significance with all the trades that have taken place over the past few days.

Last week Amir Johnson made Bill Simmons’ list of the 25 worst contracts in the league. The 5 year – 34 million dollar contract he signed this summer was ranked by Simmons at #20. I know, as with almost everything Simmons writes, fans with opposing opinions around the country are firing off angry emails to the Sports Guy about the perceived slights to their own favorite players. Today I’m going to take up the defense of Amir Johnson.

As a starting point for comparison, I put together a list of all the power forwards (or C/PF or SF/PF) in the league making at least $5 million this season, Johnson’s salary for 2010-2011. I came up with 41 names:

If you’re looking at that list saying, “Exactly! Amir Johnson is about the 41st best power forward in the league and he’s being paid five million dollars this season!” then you sir don’t know Amir Johnson. Let me introduce you. The table below shows some of Johnson’s numbers from this season.

Hopefully his scoring efficiency and rebounding numbers will pop out at you. There are some impressive numbers, but nothing to suggest frontcourt dominance. So how does he compare to the other power forwards with equal or larger salaries this season? This next table has the same categories but shows you his rank out of the 41 power forwards listed above.

In only three of these categories does he stack up in the bottom half of this group. He doesn’t score much, mostly because he doesn’t take many shots. He doesn’t play a lot of minutes because he fouls a ton. However when he is on the floor he’s among the most productive players on this list.

His Usage Rate is low, just 15.75%, but he is among the most efficient offensive players on this list. He has the top individual ORtg. and the second highest TS%, trailing only Dirk Nowitzki. Despite his low usage rate, his team benefits hugely from his efficiency. The Raptors’ ORtg. is 6.2 points higher with Johnson on the floor.

Although it’s not often utilized, he has surprising versatility on offense. Roughly 60% of his shots come at the rim which means 40% of his shots come away from the rim. Although he doesn’t have a reputation as a “stretch four,” Johnson is shooting above the league average from every area of the floor except three pointers, where he’s attempted just one on the season. He is shooting 42% on 16-23ft. jumpers, well above the league average of 39.8%.

Turning to defense, Johnson is one of only 5 players out of these 41 who average at least a steal and a block per 36 minutes. His individual DRtg. is not overly impressive this season. However, he’s making a defensive impact on a horrible defensive team. The Raptors’ DRtg. is 3 points better with Johnson on the floor.

I understand that any evaluation of Johnson’s contract has to focus on more than just this season. The deal he signed with Toronto will keep him under contract until the 2014-2015 season, at which point his salary will be seven million dollars. I’d like to point out that at the end of that contract he will only be 28 years old. Since this is his sixth season in the league, it’s easy to forget that Johnson is so young. He’s still just 23, turning 24 on May 1st.

Johnson has been in the league six seasons but has played just 4,743 minutes. That’s just slightly more minutes than Tyreke Evans or Stephen Curry have played in a season and a half. Now obviously he’s played a smaller amount of minutes because he entered the league so raw and has had trouble staying on the floor because of fouls. My point is simply that he still has a lot of room for development and is far from a finished product.

Johnson has only really played significant minutes over the past three seasons. The table below shows his improvement in several statistical categories over that time span.

There are some areas where his development has stagnated or regressed. DRtg. and ORB% would be two areas of concern. However, his MPG, Pts/36, DRB%, Stl/36, PF/36, ORtg., WP/48 and PER have all shown a consistent pattern of improvement over the past three seasons. He has continued to get better and with his age there is no reason to thank that pattern will suddenly come to an abrupt halt.

I would guess that Simmons’ would counter with an argument that the Raptors could have had him for a much smaller contract. In addition there is an argument to be made that this contract will look worse under the new collective bargaining agreement and that the Raptors created a log jam at power forward with a very similar rookie in Ed Davis. An ESPN report from early July quoted Johnson’s agent (nororiously unreliable sources) as saying Johnson had interest from four different teams. This may just be blowing smoke and the Raptors probably did overpay for Johnson. Still, I don’t think this qualifies his contract as anything approaching one of the 25 worst in the NBA. As far as the logjam is concerned, are any teams opposed to have effective depth in the frontcourt?

For between 5 and 7 million a year, over the next five season, the Raptors have locked up a very young, developing, athletic big man with no off the court issues or significant injury problems. They get a player with plenty of upside who will be in his chronologic prime throughout the contract. That player is already an elite power forward with regards to offensive efficiency and offensive rebounding, not to mention being a solid defender and very good on the defensive glass. I’m sure I could think of at least 25 worse ways to spend 35 million dollars as a general manager.



Filed under NBA, Statistical Analysis, Toronto Raptors

9 responses to “The Price of Everything, The Value of Nothing

  1. Really enjoyed this post man.

    • Thanks Steven. I’m a Pacers’ fan but I’ve always really liked Johnson. I would have loved to see the Pacers pick him up at some point over the past two years. He would have been a great fit in their frontcourt.

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

  2. Sweet article. If Amir can be less foul prone then we got ourselves a steal. $35 million over 5 is not that much. Jerome James got $30 m for 3 years, Calvin Booth got $ 34 m for 6 years. Those are bad contracts.

    • Thanks for reading and commenting Sean. Fouls are definitely going to be his limiting factor moving forward. I agree this contract is definitely not Jamesian, Boothian or even Eschmeyerian.

  3. Greyberger

    I think Amir’s agent was shrewd to negotiate for 5 years, considering the expiring CBA and some uncertainty about whether he would pan out in a bigger role. He’s earned every penny but I wouldn’t go so far and say he’s a great value for them – as a bottom team the Raptors need to be saving for the next central pieces, not the sixth or seventh man on a good team that Amir Johnson represents.

    While I’m still nitpicking, the concern before the contract was his high rate of fouling, and he’s the fourth foulingest player this year on a per-minute basis. Per-minute and per-possession metrics will make him look great but you have to keep in mind he has trouble staying on the floor, and honestly he has a history of it now.

    • Good points. He will probably always be a foul-prone player and it’s going to be an achilles heel. However, his foul rate has declined three straight years and is basically at a career low. Roy Hibbert dropped his PF/36 from 7.7 as a rookie to 3.9 this season. It will always be a weakness but it should get better than it is now.

  4. Swirsky's Soldier

    Could the Raptors have had him for less? Maybe. Maybe not. I think you have to look at market forces for that:

    1)I know the Golden State Warriors were interested in him. There was another team aswell (which escapes me right now). I think before the question can be answered one would have to find out how much they were offering to really know.

    2)Drew Gooden was signed for a similar (?) deal setting a rough price for solid (if unspectacular) PFs.

    3) Teams were, in general, spending money in bunches that offseason, driving up the prices for all players services.

    These 3 reasons may or may not justify a contract, but they have an impact. What does justify a contract is results, and Amir has earned every penny he has taken in.

  5. Buddahfan

    Amir would probably foul a lot less if he was playing on a team with guys who could defend.

    He still commits some dumb fouls but a lot of his fouls are incurred because he is caught on a defensive island trying to protect the basket against a guard or wing player that blew by the Raptors guards or SF.

    He also has to carry the defensive load for Bargnani, no small task.

    He is averaging 29 MPG and 4 FPG as a starter this season in his first extended stint as a starter.

    I think next season he should be able to get up to 32 – 34 MPG as a starter which while not great is more than adequate.

    • It’s interesting that his block rate has gone done along with his foul rate. It almost seems like he’s solved some of his fouling problems by being slightly less aggressive. I agree though the horrible perimeter defense played by his teammates certainly isn’t helping at all.

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