The moratorium period is over, and Danny Ainge has locked in his first few free agents: Amir Johnson being the big one. The official signing is more of a relief than it should be, especially after the DeAndre Jordan debacle. Those types of situations only come across every so often, but it is nice to see the Celtics acquire someone officially. After all, everything else is up in the air.
Amir Johnson has agreed to and signed his contract; a lucrative deal worth just about $24 million over two years. This signing drew attention once the news broke. Surely a guy like Amir Johnson (an injury prone, secondary or even tertiary tier free agent) should not be making an average of $12 million a year...right? Perhaps. But then again, the cap is set at $70 million this season, exceeding the $67 million estimate. By the time next summer rolls around, this $70 million cap record will be shattered, and Amir Johnson can be a potential bargain.
Johnson is a valuable two-way player: a hustle guy who can score, defend, and provide endless energy. There is no question that, if he stays relatively healthy, he will contribute in almost every scenario. But if the Celtics really want to get the most out of Amir Johnson, they need to learn how to play him.
Johnson was part of an efficient starting lineup: a starting five bloated with young talent. He spent most of his playing time alongside Jonas Valanciunas, one of the brighter up and comers in the NBA. However, Valanciunas thrives when he is placed in the paint so he can score around the basket. The Lithuanian big man doesn't have much of an offensive game outside the paint, and that skill set didn't typically let Johnson do his thing.
Of all the skills Johnson possesses on offense, the pick and roll is his most efficient talent. He uses his length and power to roll quickly, finishing with finesse. He proved to be one of the best pick and roll finishers in the NBA last season because he isn't much of a creator. 70.5% of Johnson's made field goals last season were assisted. His evident knack for scoring out of this play is perfect for the guards he will be paired with in Boston. However, it is important to note that a large part of scoring out of the pick and roll is based on the big man he is put alongside.
The floor spacing hypothesis has been proved. It works. The Golden State Warriors were able to stretch out the Cavaliers, preventing Timofey Mozgov from camping out in the paint. The Celtics approach to floor spacing is not that similar to the Warriors' approach (the Celtics don't plan on bombing threes left and right), but the base of the concept is the same. With consistent stretch bigs, the Celtics can clear the paint, leaving enough space to run plays, drive, kick out. Now they have a pick and roll dominant forward and a ton of space to work with.
When Johnson was paired with Valanciunas, it was more difficult for him to execute a pick and roll. Valanciunas drifting out of the paint wasn't very effective because his defender knew he wouldn't do anything from out there. This road block didn't stop Johnson from reaching his destination, but it was a bit of a hassle to get around. When he was paired with a big that can shoot from outside, or even when he was the big in small ball lineups, there would be an empty lane for Johnson to roll into.
This type of formation is what the Celtics play, but with even more space. When Kelly Olynyk or Jared Sullinger are on the floor, everything is spread out, and that can be perfect for Amir Johnson to execute his pick and rolls. The stretch bigs will keep their defenders honest, leaving no help on the back line. Brad Stevens can keep four players on the perimeter and have Amir and Isaiah or Marcus run through these pick and rolls with ease.
This system worked well with Boston bigs this past season. Tyler Zeller was able to move around the paint thanks to Olynyk and Sullinger's abilities to shoot from outside. Zeller's limited offense was capitalized on; he became relatively effective scoring around the basket.
See how the Celtics stretch out the Nets defense leading to a Zeller dunk. Zeller is a perfect example of what a properly spaced floor can create.
The two videos shown above are actually quite similar. All players on the floor have the ability to score outside the paint,, leaving just one big man to protect the rim.
It is hard to compare Tyler Zeller to Amir Johnson because, quite frankly, Johnson is the more highly skilled player in almost every aspect. He sets harder screens, he can shoot, he is a hard-nosed defender. So there are no limits to what Johnson can do next to a stretch big like Kelly Olynyk or Jared Sullinger. He will remain productive when he is placed next to a guy like Tyler Zeller, but his true potential will be reached when his skills are maximized.
When the Celtics signed Amir Johnson, people forgot that he is being put in the perfect system. Get ready for some deadly pick and roll action throughout the 2015-16 NBA season.