The Philadelphia 76ers are 12-9, sitting in fifth place in the Eastern Conference at the quarter pole of the regular season. While budding superstars Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons are rightfully receiving the majority of the credit for the team’s turnaround, it remains that — like raising a child — playing winning basketball takes a village. One of those key villagers for the 76ers has been 30-year-old big man Amir Johnson.
Inked to a one-year, $11 million deal this past offseason, Johnson’s signing was the embodiment of the shrug emoji, lauded more for not taking up cap space beyond this season than for what the former Celtic could actually do on the court. Despite starting 77 regular season games last season in Boston, Johnson was viewed primarily as a ceremonial “veteran locker room presence,” targeted by general manager Bryan Colangelo due to their shared time in Toronto.
However, after backup center Richaun Holmes fractured his wrist in October, Johnson stepped up and has earned the confidence of head coach Brett Brown and the entire team. Following a win last month over the Jazz in which he collected eight points, 13 rebounds, and four blocks off the bench, starter Joel Embiid said Johnson “was the MVP of tonight.” Those performances are why Johnson has remained Embiid’s primary backup, even with Holmes having returned from injury.
Unlike Boston, where Johnson was often paired alongside Al Horford in two-big lineups, he has not played a minute alongside Joel Embiid in Philadelphia. The shift to playing exclusively center has suited Johnson well. One could make the argument that Johnson is playing the best ball of his career, especially on the defensive end. On a per-36 minute basis, Johnson’s rebounding (13.6) and steals (1.6) numbers are his best ever, while his 1.8 blocks per 36 minutes are his highest since his final year in Detroit in 2008-09.
Those aren’t empty calorie stats, either; they have led directly to team success. Johnson’s defensive rating of 98.9 is the highest among 76ers regulars (those playing at least 10 minutes per game). Yes, even slightly better than the Process himself. In all, the 76ers have a plus-1.2 net rating with Johnson on the court, compared to 0.6 with him out of the game. Those numbers don’t jump off the page, but it’s critical for winning teams to have the bench not give away the gains made by the starters. Johnson is filling that role admirably. For comparison, Holmes has a minus-5.5 net rating on the year.
Now in his 30s and on the downslope of his physical athleticism (I feel you, Amir), Johnson is relying more and more on expert positioning to make impactful defensive plays. On the following pick-and-roll against Utah, Johnson correctly hangs back against Ricky Rubio, having done his homework to know the Jazz point guard is not interested in pulling up for a jumper. He cuts off Rubio’s driving lane to the rim, before quickly recovering to block Ekpe Udoh from behind:
In addition to those types of quick, instinctive plays, Johnson also gets a lot of mileage out of being physical defensively. On the next play, he gets up in Boston center Daniel Theis to disrupt a potential pick-and-roll at the top of the key. When Marcus Smart makes a lazy pass, Johnson is in position to take it the other way and earn a trip to the foul line:
When the story of The Process is told years down the road, Amir Johnson might not even garner a mention. With the 76ers carving out the cap space to be able to sign a max-level free agent next summer, the likely scenario is that this is a one-year pit stop in the City of Brotherly Love for Johnson. But the mark of a true professional is performing well in any situation. Johnson is helping the 76ers win games this season, and for his own prospects, the original second-round pick of the Pistons is showing he still has plenty of gas left in the tank.
MORE NBA COVERAGE
- Could LeBron James really land in Philly?
- Is it time for Sixers to just waive Jahlil Okafor?
- Joel Embiid may be playing too well for Philadelphia’s own good