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Amir Johnson and Al Horford among “teammate of the year” winners voted on by last season’s teams

Celtics fans may have been ready to let Johnson walk but the numbers and players themselves make it clear. We should be thrilled to see him back for year two.

NBA: Toronto Raptors at Boston Celtics Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

The NBPA relieved some of the summer news tension with the Player’s Vote Awards. Selected for the athletes by the athletes, these awards mix various official media-voted awards, such as “most valuable player” with more unique distinctions like “global impact.” Steph Curry won MVP again, Lebron James took home the best social media follow, Tim Duncan won “most influential veteran”, which sounded tailor-made for him, and “global impact” was bestowed upon Kobe Bryant. That one may or may not have made the trophy case.

All those were well and good but the award many were eyeing was the “teammate of the year,” given to one player on every team from a season ago voted on by their respective teammates. Unlike the league-wide awards, likely chosen on perception and popularity, these team-specific distinctions actually provide a valuable peek into the locker-room dynamic of the league’s rosters. In addition, it was intriguing that, as Jared Weiss pointed out, seven of the fifteen players chosen out West are no longer with their teams. That list includes good old former Celtic Brandon Bass, who departed the Lakers.

Back in our neck of the woods out East, the Celtics had two winners in a roundabout way. Amir Johnson was given their honor, an ode to both his veteran presence and the starting production that helped improve the Celtics by eight wins. Newcomer Al Horford took home the crown of best teammate from the Hawks, the team he departed. The awards, according to a NBPA press release, were voted on at the end of the regular season and thusly did not include postseason results or free agent fallout.

There’s no way to quantify teammate prowess, but voting likely went along with the internal tendency within locker rooms to look up to a particular veteran who carries himself in an exemplary way. That’s what makes these selections so intriguing.

Along with that, it was fitting to see the spotlight shine back on Johnson, who quite possibly was the best big man on the Cs last year in terms of on-court production as well. The nagging foot ailments that followed him around were frustrating, and at times the offense was incredibly sloppy, but to see a reliable presence send shots flying in the other direction on defense was so refreshing after a year of Tyler Zeller inside. His measly 52 blocks led the team in 2014-15, whereas Johnson came along and swatted 83 shots in three fewer games played while taking the center position for himself.

The uproar over signing Johnson certainly calmed down when it was announced that his second-year option was non-guaranteed, opening up some flexibility to possibly add a high-profile star to the squad. Danny Ainge ultimately did that with Horford—another stupendous teammate according to the Hawks—but would hold out until July 7 moments before the deadline to bring him back on board.

There probably wasn’t a player more underappreciated by the fans or even the organization a year ago, but the players certainly understood his value. That they chose him over Isaiah Thomas and his boisterous production, the fiery Jae Crowder, or even the longest tenured Celtic, Avery Bradley, says something.

Certainly there’s an element of veteran respect instilled within the selection, but on a team so inundated with defense-first talk (4th in the NBA with 100.9 defensive rating) and with their success stemming heavily from their new stability inside, the choice of Johnson was perfect. As a defense they allowed a whole point in the paint fewer per game than in the previous season.

For the analytics-driven people, Johnson checked the box as well. In terms of defensive box plus/minus, Johnson placed in the top ten at 3.2 amongst the likes of Tim Duncan, Deandre Jordan, Draymond Green, Paul Millsap, and Rudy Gobert. Of the top ten in that list, ranking box score performance relative to team performance compared to the league average, all received defensive player of the year votes. The exceptions were Ian Mahinmi, Johnson, Pau Gasol, and (amazingly enough) the league leader, Duncan.

A single positive score on the per-100 stat indicates a point above league average, putting Johnson 3.2 points per 100 possessions better than the average defender in the league. In his final season Duncan was an astounding 5 points above average. Boston and San Antonio were two of the top six teams in terms of defensive efficiency. With a good rim protector you’re bound to stop an extra 3 to 5 points per game at the rim, making a vital difference at the end of the season. Only San Antonio, Atlanta, Boston, the L.A. Clippers, Golden State, and Indiana allowed fewer than 101 points per 100 possesions in a year full of epic offense. All had players among the league leaders in defensive box plus-minus.

A team like the Celtics, who stresses the numbers game so consistently and likely makes it clear with their players through Brad Stevens, understood the impact Johnson was able to create without much defensive help around him inside. Now he’s joined by one of the other best rim protectors in the NBA in Horford, who was also recognized for his quiet impact on the defensive end as well. Many would have been quick to forget about Johnson if the team dumped him for cap space. Instead, now he’s bound to be renowned in a tandem that could propel the Celtics to the top of the league in defensive efficiency.

As Jeff Clark puts it, if players were as loved for defense as they are for offense then Avery Bradley would be a superstar. In that world, maybe Johnson is more appreciated by fans as well. However, via the union’s Player Appreciation Vote it’s clear that the Celtics from a year ago knew fully well who helped them climb to a new step on the ladder that is the East. Next year, Johnson is well situated to take them to the next step, but for him and Horford the only question that still remains is health. Even the best teammates don’t mean nearly as much when they’re stuck on the bench or ailing. Just ask the Warriors about how useful Andrew Bogut was in the Finals after he went down.

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