Chisholm: Johnson deal depends on frontcourt additions

Tim Chisholm
7/2/2010 12:14:08 PM
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So, while the news wasn't earth-shaking, the expected move of re-signing power forward Amir Johnson went down Thursday, adding some desperately needed certainty to next year's Toronto Raptors ballclub.

What did raise some eyebrows, though, is his five-year, $34-million contract.

Now, the fact is that when Milwaukee inked Drew Gooden to a five-year, $32-million contract at the start of the free agency, they set the financial standard for high-usage backup power forwards.

Any NBA agent worth his salt is going to ensure that his client uses that deal as a baseline for his client, and while the deal is probably more than the Raptors had anticipated paying, the market had spoken.

The thing is, it isn't nearly as burdensome a contract as some are trying to make it sound like it is.

Johnson was a highly efficient member of the Raptors last season with a PER of 16.7, second on the team to Chris Bosh and above other NBA bigs like Chris Kaman, Emeka Okafor and Kendrick Perkins. In terms of players that played over 1000 minutes for the Raptors last year, he had the second-highest total rebound percentage  at 16.1% (again, to Bosh), and he had the highest offensive rebound percentage at 12.9.

Rebounding percentage, for those new to the stat, is an estimate of the percentage of available rebounds a player grabbed while he was on the court.

For a team that ranked in the bottom-ten in the league in rebound rate, defensive rebound percentage and offensive rebound percentage, retaining Johnson's kind of board activity was a must for this team. That is doubly true when one considers that the team's lone double-digit rebounder is currently soliciting offers from a bevy of new suitors.

The stat you're hearing most attributed to Johnson in the wake of the announcement of his new deal, though, has nothing to do with his rebounding - it's his 6.3 personal fouls per-36 minutes.

There is no way to sugar coat that stat, since it's not some one-year aberration (it's actually below his career average), but it doesn't tell the whole story, either.

First, Amir Johnson is never going to be a 36-minute per-game player. In fact, even though he's a more advanced player than incoming rookie Ed Davis, he'll probably be playing his understudy for the bulk of this year.

That's important because when it comes to backup power forwards, it's really not all that important how many fouls they pick up during the game because their ability to stay on the floor is not as essential as it is for a starter.

They are out on the court to hustle, play defense and wreak havoc in the minutes he plays, and sometimes that kind of play results in fouls.

If he's going to be a 25-minute per-game player, which is a far more realistic projection for Johnson, he'd be averaging 4.5 fouls per-game with the same metric.

It that a lot? Yes, but he still isn't fouling out. It's probably also prudent to point out that despite Johnson's foul proclivity, he only fouled out once all season (and he played all 82 games).

He did have five fouls fourteen times, but he averaged above his minutes-per-game average on the season in those contests.

Also, one imagines that if the Raptors were able to acquire guards that we're so porous defensively he wouldn't be so prone to fouling in the first place as an attempt to cover for all that penetration.

Truth be told, though, this deal will be impossible to truly evaluate until the end of the off-season when the new Raptors roster can be seen in it's completion.

If the frontcourt stays more of less as it is right now, the deal will be fine (as we'll explain in a second), but if they start adding more pieces, this deal becomes increasingly onerous.

The frontcourt rotation as it stands today is basically Andrea Bargnani and Ed Davis as starters (in my opinion), Amir Johnson as their primary backup, and Solomon Alabi as a situational reserve for matchups and the like.

That rotation could use a veteran presence in a mentorship role, but for a rebuilding team it's a nice combination of offense, defense and hustle with reasonable potential for growth.

It allows guys like Davis and Johnson to have plenty of minutes to play with to try and develop more expansive games while also allowing Bargnani to anchor the team's offensive attack to see how close he can get to maxing out his skills.

However, if the team begins acquiring other frontcourt pieces, this deal for Johnson looks a lot less defensible.

First, let's say that Bargnani is basically assured of no less than the 35 minutes he got per-game last year, and will probably see a bump up to 38 or 39.

Let's also assume, then, that Davis and Johnson split the 58 remaining minutes in the frontcourt, giving Johnson 25, Davis 30 and maybe giving Alabi 3, but probably zero on most nights (think Rasho's role from last year). That's a good split amongst four players that, again, gives lots of time for the young guys to work through their games on the court.

Now, if the Raptors were to bring back a big man in a sign-and-trade with Bosh, those roles start to get wonky.

For instance, Taj Gibson is basically a Johnson clone, so how does the team differentiate their minutes? They'd have to play Gibson because he's too good to rot on the bench, but playing him would mean that Johnson and Davis see more erratic minutes and that interrupts their momentum and development, as well as Gibson's.

Plus, you don't have to have an elephant's memory to remember what happened to the team's performance when Johnson's minutes began eroding after Reggie Evans came back from injury (hint: it wasn't pretty).

As the team's rotation ballooned down the the stretch of the season, the chemistry on the floor evaporated and the team tailspun out of the Playoffs. All of these projections, by the way, are made with the expectation that the Raptors trade Evans' expiring contract to fill out other areas of the roster.

The above example doesn't just apply to Gibson, either. The same would be true if the team went after Michael Beasley from Miami, Luis Scola from Houston or even J.J. Hickson from Cleveland.

Fans and media types love to talk about collecting assets wantonly when they talk about rebuilding teams, as if assets have some empirical and unchanging value, but if those assets simply cancel each other out then that doesn't do much to retain value in those assets. Need proof? Consider the open-market value of Hedo Turkoglu and Jose Calderon right now.

If the Raptors decide, though, to go after a bigger fish like David Lee or Amar'e Stoudemire, then they're going to need to re-think their whole frontcourt plan because then having a $7-million per-year backup power forward becomes a reckless expenditure.

It says here that in such a scenario, the Raptors should look to unload Bargnani in an attempt to address shortcomings elsewhere on the roster. Of course, by all accounts the Raptors are far from seeing that kind of a scenario play out, so it's really not worth exploring any further.

No, the key to evaluating this Johnson deal right now is trying to place it in context. Five-years and $34-million do not exist in some vacuum to be lauded or decried without a frame of reference.

It is one part of a larger whole, and that whole has yet to be entirely defined as a basis for measurement. If the team embraces rebuilding, keeps its frontcourt basically as is and makes Johnson a high-usage backup (or, as some prefer, a starter), then his deal makes some sense.

Set against Bargnani's $8-million salary for next season, Ed Davis' $1.5-million and Alabi's $800, 000, Johnson's approximately $6-million deal for this season makes for a pretty cost-effective frontcourt.

The rookie-level deals that Davis and Alabi will have make Johnson's money easy to absorb, and Davis' cheap contract lasts for exactly the same length as Amir's current deal runs - making for a very cost-effective power forward rotation.

As has been stated, though, that only remains true if that is the team's power forward rotation going forward.

There are plenty more moves to be made by this team in the coming weeks, so we'll re-evaluate when more information is made available.

Amir Johnson (Photo: Ron Turenne/NBAE via Getty Images)


(Photo: Ron Turenne/NBAE via Getty Images)
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