On July 4, the Sixers brought back unrestricted free agent Amir Johnson, last season’s backup to Joel Embiid, on a veteran’s minimum deal. And the response from the fans was not all positive. In fact, the very first comment on our post about the signing reads as follows: “Again? Yuck [sad emoji].”
There did not seem to be much enthusiasm for Amir’s return. Most of the response from the fanbase was either annoyance or indifference, with only a small portion of fans actually showing excitement. For the entire season last year, Johnson was ahead of Richaun Holmes on the depth chart, a fact that angered many, as Holmes’ flashy athleticism was more appealing to the naked eye.
But Brett Brown went to Amir Johnson virtually every time, and even though a lot of the fans can’t see it, the Sixers can: he is simply a good player — he is far from a perfect one, but he is the definition of reliable. Every night, you are going to get solid rim protection, very good rebounding (especially on the offensive end), and a player who will hustle on every play, dive for every loose ball, and do whatever else neccessary to help his team win.
Now, Amir does have limitations, and they are significant. He is not as good finishing around the rim as one would hope, and has never made more than 0.3 three-pointers per game for a full season. Even though he is a very good defender, he has never been much of a shot-blocker. His athleticism is nowhere near that of a player like Holmes. These are legitimate gripes one can have with his game, and they are very fair. But to point out these flaws at every turn without paying any attention to any of the benefits that Amir provides just isn’t fair.
Amir had the highest motor on the team last year, constantly playing harder than anyone else on the court. The combination of his motor, toughness and basketball IQ make him a more than viable option off the bench for the Sixers. He also served as a great locker room presence last year, which tends to get overrated, but on a team with very young franchise cornerstones in place, is invaluable.
Leadership aside, Amir provided solid value for the Sixers as the first big off of the bench. Among all big-men who played at least 50 games and 1,000 minutes last year, he ranked 5th in Defensive Box Plus-Minus.
Here is a list of all players in the NBA who played at least 50 games and 1,000 minutes last year and matched Amir Johnson’s total rebound percentage and DBPM: Rudy Gobert, Kyle O’Quinn, Russell Westbrook, DeMarcus Cousins, Pau Gasol, and Andre Drummond. That’s it.
Per cleaningtheglass.com, the Sixers had an excellent Defensive rating of 100.6 with Joel Embiid on the floor last season. This is no surprise, as Embiid has been a dominant defensive force ever since he first stepped onto an NBA court. But what the Sixers always struggled with was maintaining a good defense when Joel left the floor. Well, it’s safe to say Amir Johnson changed that:
Amir didn’t keep the defense at the league-best level that Embiid did, but that is an impossible task for a backup center. What he did do was keep the Sixers very good on that end of the floor, something recent backups could not.
But Amir also had some sneaky value on the offensive end. While he isn’t a shooter, and can’t be relied upon to get you a bucket when you need it, he is a great screen-setter, which always helps shooters. Take a look at the difference that Amir’s presence made for the Sixers’ three best shooters last year, JJ Redick, Dario Saric and Marco Belinelli:
Here we have yet another set of stats that show how Amir Johnson’s impact last season extended beyond the box score. Most of all, they are evidence that you should never judge a player based on their highlight reel. Last year, Amir was a rock-solid reserve for the Sixers. And there’s no reason to think he won’t be that again next season.