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It’s a New Day: Richaun Holmes & Amir Johnson

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NBA: Milwaukee Bucks at Philadelphia 76ers Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

The Sixers aren’t losers anymore. The bandwagon is overflowing. Multiple potential superstars line the roster. The team sold out its initial allotment of season tickets. The new world-class practice facility draws rave reviews from every player on the roster as camp kicks off. Legitimate NBA players are competing for minutes throughout the entire roster.

Gone are the days of fringe NBA players trying not to give away their shots. Gone are the brick-layers of yesteryear. Some vestiges of that era remain - here’s to Robert Covington and T.J. McConnell for kicking down their proverbial doors into the NBA - but most of the roster are well-established athletes or are high draft picks with the pedigree to be great someday. Also, Jahil Okafor is still around, but even he’s turned a new leaf.

It’s a new day, yes it is. And we’re going to celebrate it in our player previews, which will focus on the change in the air, the new faces, and the old faces in new era of Sixers basketball. We’ll compare and contrast the old and the new, though the writers here might change the format up day-by-day. Today, we talk about Richaun Holmes and the newly signed Amir Johnson, who are likely to be competing head-to-head for the honor of backing up the best center in the NBA.

Old Day

Richaun Holmes has often been an afterthought during his two years in the NBA. Chosen with the 37th pick in the 2015 NBA Draft, he was seen as the 4th choice center on the Sixers at the time, and all Sixers draft coverage focused on their use of the 3rd overall pick on yet another lottery center— this time it was Jahlil Okafor.

As one of four rookies to play for the Sixers that season, Holmes was easily the most efficient player of the four, proving himself capable and intuitive as a roll man (DUNK GUY!!), while punctuating his dunks with highlight blocks once a game. As a sophomore last year, Holmes increased his scoring efficiency to 61.1% TS, while stretching his game more frequently to the 3-point line (35.1%) and improving his rebounding to be much less of a liability. But he was again overshadowed by Joel Embiid’s supernova season, Nerlens Noel’s drama, and the team’s ongoing injury management incompetence.
Amir Johnson is a quintessential NBA veteran at this point in his career. He has seen his minutes per game decrease for each of the last 3 years, and, having never attempted more than 66 3FGA’s in a single season, feels like a relic of the past. He is well-respected across the league, with a reputation for maturity and even-handedness that is sure to have endeared him to Colangelo, who is so acutely aware of the Sixers’ perception around the league.

But Johnson is not simply a locker room pick-up with nothing left to offer on the court. He spent the last 4 years playing on the best non-LeBron Eastern Conference team, and he played key roles for each of those franchises. According to Ben Falk’s Cleaning the Glass (sign up for a subscription if you haven’t already!), with the exception of 2014-15, every team he has ever played on has performed better with Johnson on the court.

Last year’s Celtics, a 53-win 1-seed, played at the level of a 58-win team with Johnson on the court, 7.3 points per 100 possessions better than when he was off the court. The previous season, the Celtics were 3.7 pp100 better with Johnson on as opposed to off.

His value lies in the little, tough to measure things. He rarely shoots, requiring few possessions to be effective, but scores efficiently when he does. He’s a good passer, finding chinks in the defensive armor and probing at them just enough. His mobility and size allow him to be a defensive presence, even if his lack of length or vertical pop make him a pure rim protector. Add it up, and you have a useful rotational big.

New Day

Now in his third season, this is Richaun’s opportunity to step out of the shadows and become an instrumental part of the team. With Jahlil Okafor’s fitness struggles and Holmes’ strong play down the stretch last season, the backup center role is his for the taking. Of course, it’s never that simple.

The signing of Amir Johnson has created real competition for the backup center position, with a perfectly contrarian pair of candidates. Where Richaun is emphatic, thunderous, and vertical, Johnson is agile, ground-bound, and refined. Where Richaun relies on weak-side shot blocking to impart defensive impact, Johnson relies on quick hands, mobility, and positioning.

Their careers are headed in different directions; where Amir’s minutes have dropped recently, Holmes saw his playing time increase by 7 minutes per game last year.

The two serve different purposes, each giving a different option to Brett, depending on how a game is shaping up. But both are easily in the top half of NBA backup centers, and there multiple teams (Hi, Brooklyn! Hi, Milwaukee!) who would love to have players of their caliber starting at the 5.

Choosing between the two a nice problem to have for a team that has been bereft of quality NBA players since 2013. While the downsizing of the NBA is a trend that doesn’t appear to be going away any time soon, center remains an important position. In Richaun and Amir, the Sixers have fortified their depth, enabling a more cautious approach with Embiid’s health and more flexibility when all three are healthy. It’s a nice place to be.