When Danny Ainge signed Amir Johnson to a two-year, $24M deal last summer, it was underwhelming to say the least. After again failing to lure a big free agent to Boston, Johnson was the summer's only catch. He wasn't exactly the fireworks that many had hoped for, but he was, to his credit, a solid vet that could further the team's improvement from last year's strong finish.
With a reputation as one of the league's most efficient pick-and-roll bigs and an above-average rim protector, he was the kind of player that the Celtics just didn't have on the roster at the end of the 2014-2015 campaign. Johnson wasn't a preferred stretch 4 or 5 like Jared Sullinger or Kelly Olynyk, but he was a more experienced version of Tyler Zeller, a big man that could patrol the paint on defense and run the floor on offense.
To some extent, Johnson delivered on his promise. His per-36 numbers of 11.5 points, 10.1 rebounds, and 1.7 blocks were on par with his career averages. He quickly replaced Zeller as the team's starting center early in the season and became one of Boston's most reliable players. His offensive numbers took a hit with Brad Stevens electing to play more small ball. The team did not run a lot of PnR for Johnson, and his playing time dwindled to just under 23 minutes a game.
However, per Basketball-Reference's advanced analytics, he had the third highest VORP (Value Over Replacement Player) behind Isaiah Thomas and Jae Crowder, tied Thomas for box score +/-, and was 4th in team PER. While those are all positive signs pointing to a successful season for Johnson, I highly doubt that Amir is in green next season.
Johnson was always a place-filler. When he signed last season, he was only 28, but an old 28. The elder statesman had already spent ten years in the league and played twice as long as the next oldest player on the roster. He just doesn't fit the age profile of this team. As a role player, sure, but not at his $12M price tag and not necessarily as a starter. His inflated salary was justified last season because 1) it made for a tradable asset to match salaries for a big-time player, and 2) the team option in the 2nd year allows Ainge to cut him or deal him before free agency opens up this summer.
The second year of Amir's contract is guaranteed on July 3rd, ten days after the draft and midway through the NBA moratorium between July 1-6. If his non-guaranteed deal isn't traded on draft night or soon after, it could signal a youth movement for Ainge. Bringing back Johnson would stunt the growth of Jordan Mickey and the other young big men on the Celtics' and Red Claws' rosters. If the Celtics make a blockbuster deal, Amir's contract will certainly be included.
Ultimately, I like Amir. The way he ran up and down the court, his awkward shots in the paint, the shot-put three pointers--he reminded me so much of Robert Parish back in the 80s. But that's the thing: the modern NBA and, particularly, the Celtics are moving in a different direction. It's why Jonas Jerebko saw more time in the playoffs than Johnson. This isn't a referendum on AJ's play but just a sign of where the league is heading. Players have to be able to defend multiple positions, be more versatile with their dribble, and score from more areas of the floor, and that's just not Johnson's game.