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Amir Johnson is Filling the Defensive Void Left by Embiid’s Absence

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NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at Philadelphia 76ers Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Amir Johnson’s play has been a polarizing topic in Sixers fandom. One side (the minority?) claims he’s a steady defensive presence who utilizes veteran experience to contribute in ways often not measurable by the box score. The other side claims that Amir’s prime has passed him and injuries have added up, and the Sixers would be better off inserting Richaun Holmes into Amir’s role.

Either way you view Amir, one thing seemed certain just a few days ago: the Sixers would struggle mightily, especially on defense, in Joel Embiid’s absence. Embiid is a Defensive Player of the Year candidate in the eyes of many Sixers fans. His presence in the paint deters wanna-be penetrators, at times crippling opposing offensive systems.

Since Embiid went down, the Sixers haven’t faced an offensive juggernaut, or even a team that has an organizational interest in winning (players always want to win, even if their desire to do so may be a bit hampered). But one thing has been clear thus far: they’ve been just fine defensively without their superstar Center.

In the two games since the shoulder collision heard round the Delaware Valley, the Sixers have allowed just 91 points (Hawks) and 101 points (Hornets) for a defensive rating of… 90.4! Now I know it’s a small sample size, but Amir Johnson has been a huge factor in the Sixers ability to defend in those two games.

Amir detractors, or even a casual fan with an appreciation for adequate sample size, might say “they’re bad teams! Of course he defended well!” Well consider this: when Richaun Holmes was on the court, the Hawks averaged 1.16 points per play with an eFG% of 53.1%, versus 0.6 points per play on an eFG% of 27.9% when Richaun wasn’t on the court. When Amir Johnson was on the court, the Hawks scored just 0.56 points per play on an eFG% of 27%, versus 1.05 points per play on an eFG% 47.7% when he was off. This isn’t to slight Richaun, rather than to say it is true that we’re talking about a bad team, however, the Hawks certainly appeared to be less bad when they didn’t have to go against Amir.*

Amir also didn’t play a single minute of the 4th quarter against the Atlanta Hawks, when the Hawks tallied 32 points. It’s possible — I’d say likely — they don’t reach that number with Amir out there, but if you want to claim garbage time minutes make this argument moot, that’s fair.

If Amir’s 31 minutes (more than double his season average of MPG) against the Hornets are any indication, Brett Brown has tremendous trust in Amir’s defensive abilities and veteran presence. Not simply because he is a veteran, but because Amir is truly the best option. Amir is extremely self-aware (this CAN NOT be taken for granted), and most importantly: he does the little things right. That’s not to say they are less important, just less noticeable in live ball action. He’s not going to bring the house down with a dunk or send opposing shots into seat E11. But what he will do is more important than that.

To get an idea of what I’m talking about, let’s look at some of the tape from Hornets game. On the following play, Kemba Walker and Dwight Howard desire to execute a pick-and-roll against the defensive tandem of Amir Johnson and TJ McConnell.

A couple things happened there:

  1. First of all, Amir is an absolute pest. He’s as physical with Howard as he can possibly be without drawing a foul.
  2. When Kemba calls for the screen, Amir follows the screening Howard out past the 3PT line and hedges the screen, forcing Kemba to call off the play.
  3. The Hornets reset the offense after burning about 13 seconds of shot clock thanks to Amir’s blow up of the PNR. Then the Hornets call on a Howard post-up, but Amir is relentless in denying the entry, burning 4 more seconds. When the pass is finally made, Amir never allows Howard to get to where he wants to go, and the result is a lay-up that’s way off aim.

Let’s take another look at Amir in the PNR. Similar situation, Kemba and Dwight try to get Amir and a teammate out of sync using the PNR.

This time, Amir’s positioning causes two things: 1) he cuts of Kemba’s driving lane to the rim, and 2) never strays far enough from Dwight to allow a pass inside. The play results in Kemba chucking up an ill-advised pass that is stolen by Robert Covington, leading to a transition 3.

Now, some might argue that the result of the play was in greater thanks to Kemba’s lousy pass. But the point is that thanks to Amir’s positioning, the play was never able to develop as intended, forcing Kemba to pass out.

I’m not just nitpicking scenes of Amir’s spatial awareness. He’s not effective just in PNRs. He routinely demonstrates an ability to recognize when to rotate. On the following possession, the Hornets get…. Creative. (Something tells me they weren’t planning on the consecutive fumbling of passes.) With Michael Kidd-Gilchrist handling the ball in the corner, Ersan Ilyasova gets a bit lost.

Ilysova’s assignment, Marvin Williams, gets a beat on ‘Sova. He never pulls away fully though, because Amir correctly slides in to cut off his path to the rim. If Amir never slides, it’s a potential lob-and-dunk for 2. Rewatch the play and take note of just how quickly Amir realizes the need to rotate over.

Here’s two more plays, one of Amir correctly leaving his assignment to stop a driving Frank Kaminsky, the other Amir stepping up against a quicker guard in Jeremy Lamb who has a full head of steam. Both instances negate what could have been easy buckets.

No one is getting hyped up watching this kind of stuff, but it’s the kind of stuff that leads to winning. And I know that we’re seeing a pretty small sample size of Amir post-Embiid, so forgive me if I sound carried away - I’m well aware this doesn’t sway anyone 100%. But it’s a clear indication of two things: 1) why Brett Brown has so much trust in Amir Johnson, and 2) why the defense hasn’t missed a beat, albeit in a small sample against bad teams.

Say it with me, “Amir Johnson: less noticeable, more important.” Actually, I’ll just leave it to the man himself:

P.S.: I’m sorry the videos look like someone time traveled to 1972 with a flip phone, and recorded a low quality television showing a basketball game. I’m working to get higher quality picture.

*I’d love to incorporate the on-off NBAWowy stats from the Hornets game, but it’s not yet available.