Amir Johnson is better than you think he is

The Celtics have been on a tear recently, most obviously due to Isaiah Thomas’ unbelievable scoring and Al Horford’s sneaky passing, backed up by a significant improvement shown off by Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, and Kelly Olynyk. Amir Johnson has never been one to stuff the stat sheet, but his importance to this second-seeded Celtics roster should not be understated. In a season riddled with injuries, nobody on the roster has played in every game, but Amir has played in 54 games out of a possible 55. The only other Celtic to match that total is Jonas Jerebko, who has been playing with a broken face. We know from so many players being in and out of the lineup that stability is important, and Johnson has provided just that.

When you check Johnson’s per-game averages, you’ll see that he’s regressed in many categories, namely points, rebounds, and minutes played. His usage percentage of 13.6 over the past season and a half is his lowest since his third year in the league as a member of the Pistons. While a lower usage percentage could explain the lower numbers, it could also be a reason to believe that Johnson, closing in on 30 years of age, has lost a step. There are numbers to support that Amir is as good as he’s ever been.

According to Basketball-Reference, Johnson has accumulated 3.4 win shares so far this season. Isaiah Thomas leads the team at 9.1, leaving a huge gap between the two, but between them are Jae Crowder (4.4) and Al Horford (3.9), putting Amir in good company. Sure, one would expect a starter to be one of the team’s best five players, but Johnson providing so much value to 20 minutes per game is impressive.

As a member of the Celtics frontcourt, Johnson has taken his fair share of the blame for the team’s biggest flaw - grabbing rebounds. Avery Bradley, who has missed 19 games and will likely be out the next two (PHI & CHI), has been credited by many as the Celtics’ best rebounder this season. It’s a valid point to be made, as Bradley’s 6.9 rebounds per game narrowly lead the team, ahead of Horford’s 6.7. If you look at each player’s total rebounding percentage, Amir Johnson’s 12.9 leads the team among those who play consistent minutes (meaning we’re ignoring Tyler Zeller, Jordan Mickey, and Demetrius Jackson). Bradley’s improvement as a rebounder is great, especially for a guard, but he only grabs 2.3 more rebounds per game than Johnson while playing 15 more minutes on average. While I do agree with the idea that the Celtics should look to add a rebounder at the trade deadline, I wouldn’t advocate for trading Amir and his expiring $15 million to make it happen anymore. With Kevin Love out, I would rather the Celtics keep their best (yes, best) rebounder while adding another big in exchange for Zeller and non-Brooklyn draft picks.

On offense, Johnson is anything but flashy. If I were to describe his offense by quoting one of Aesop’s Fables, it would be “slow and steady wins the race” from The Tortoise and the Hare. Exhibit A:

 

Johnson is not a three-point specialist, but he has hit 18 of his 44 attempts this season, which gives him 40.9% shooting from deep. If you ignore Demetrius Jackson, who has made three of his total four field goals this season, Amir holds the third highest True Scoring percentage on the Celtics (62.4), behind Isaiah Thomas (62.7) and Jae Crowder (63.0). This is even more impressive when you consider that Johnson is one of the team’s worst free throw shooters at 66.7%, putting him ahead of only Jordan Mickey (60%), Tyler Zeller (57.7%), and Demetrius Jackson (50%). Even his free throw woes don’t hold him back from being one of the team’s most efficient scorers. Given the fact that the Celtics are currently sixth in offensive efficiency (109.6), I think this certainly more a reflection of Johnson’s talent than it is a lack of scoring options for the Celtics, a problem that was most prevalent last year that has vanished with the addition of Horford and the growth of Thomas, Bradley, Smart, Brown, Crowder, Olynyk, and Jerebko.

By the eye test, Johnson is alert on offense although sometimes clumsy. Between pick and roll plays with Thomas, or moving without the ball when Horford is double teamed, Johnson is always in the right place to receive a pass and go straight to the basket.

Defensively, the Celtics as a team needed some time to get into their groove. By this point, it’s clear they’re starting to figure it out, and Johnson deserves as much credit as anybody. According to Michael Pina on Twitter, Johnson held opponents to 40% shooting at the rim when he was nearby in January, which was the third-best in the league. On the season as a whole, Johnson has had to contest jump shots more than anything else, giving up only 0.861 points per possession, per Synergy Sports. This puts him in the 81st percentile in the league.

What makes Johnson so invaluable to this roster is his ability to fit in without needing the ball in his hands. Some fans have expressed their disdain in theorized deals for players like Paul George and Carmelo Anthony because they’ll constantly need the ball their hands to contribute, whereas they would rather have Isaiah with the ball. Fair enough. If that’s what you want, then you should want Johnson to stay on this team. His 13.6 usage percentage is the second lowest on the team, ahead of only Jonas Jerebko’s 11.8 percent, as well as the second lowest in his career, yet his win shares per 48 minutes are higher than any year he spent with Toronto. It’s easy to pick apart stats to make a point, but if you value chemistry, then you want Johnson to stay with Boston. Simple as that.


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