The Toronto Raptors have a roster full of scorers who struggle to involve their teammates. Rudy Gay and DeMar DeRozan are both rangy, athletic wings who aren't great passers or perimeter shooters. Kyle Lowry, for all his strengths, is well behind former Raptor point guard Jose Calderon in the playmaking department.
Nevertheless, DeRozan, Gay and Lowry represent the Raptors' top three offensive options, unless Jonas Valanciunas really blows up this year. For Dwane Casey to make the most of what he has, he must figure out a way to maximize the strengths of his flawed stars.
The easiest way to do that is to get them open shots that don't require much dribbling. That's where Amir Johnson comes in.
There's nothing noteworthy on the surface about the ninth-year big man. Last season, in by far the best year of his career, he averaged a pedestrian 10 points and 7.5 rebounds per game. He rarely posts up. His mid-range jumper has become proficient, but defenses will freely let him take it anyway. He's not a high-flying rim protector like Larry Sanders who blocks shots left and right. The Raptors aren't a playoff team, so he doesn't even get the "unsung hero on a good team" narrative like Udonis Haslem or Taj Gibson.
And yet, his presence on the court makes a staggering difference for the Raptors. Last season, Toronto outscored opponents by 4.1 points per 100 possessions with Johnson in the game ... and were outscored by 9.9 points per 100 possessions with him on the bench. That's a 14-point swing. It's also the fourth straight year where the difference of Johnson being in and out of the game was more than seven points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com. This is not an anomaly.
What makes Johnson so irreplaceable for the Raptors, at least according to those numbers? He excels at one aspect of the game that we don't currently track, the one aspect that is particularly important on a team with this kind of offensive personnel: setting screens.
Setting effective picks is a lost art among NBA big men, due to a combination of declining fundamentals and the increased importance of spacing and small ball. Johnson is a throwback, a big man who consistently makes contact on his picks, whether they're on-ball screens for Lowry or off-ball curls for DeRozan and Gay.
Here are some of his best screens of the season in video form, set, appropriately, to Styx' "Blue Collar Man."
Johnson shows textbook form on his picks to get the job done. The number one rule of setting good screens is getting into a wide stance so more ground can be covered while remaining close to stationary. (Technically, one should be completely stationary, but moving screens are the speeding of NBA crimes. The best screen setters know how to set them without getting called too often.) Notice how much room is between Johnson's feet on these plays.
Staying wide allows Johnson to act bigger than he appears. It's much harder for a defender to get around a screener who spreads his legs and uses the full width of his body. Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and Arron Afflalo cannot take the shortest route to the ball because Johnson is directly in the path of it.
The other key: staying strong. A wide stance is no good if the screener can be easily knocked off his route by the defender. Johnson also does a tremendous job of bending his knees sufficiently and creating a strong base so that defenders don't push him back when they run into him. For example:
Bending those knees, but not letting them dip too far to the ground, gives Johnson leverage. It's the same reason why post defenders are taught to get low to the ground even though they are guarding taller men. It's harder to move someone that way.
Johnson is a big guy, no question, but his technique is what allows him to function as a brick wall on so many of these screens. Very few big men in the NBA are consistently able to stay both wide and strong on their screens. Johnson can. He's found his role, embraced it and is able to help his team even though he doesn't have many other offensive skills.
And the rest of Toronto's players are the beneficiaries. There's no common stat that measures screens that lead to made shots, but if there was, Johnson would be one of the league's best. It's no accident that all of Toronto's marquee guards posted significantly better shooting percentages with Johnson in the game last year (see table above). Johnson's screens consistently get them open; nobody else's on the Raptors do, at least not yet. (We'll see how Valanciunas develops this season.)
That's why Johnson's plus-minus numbers have been so good over the past few seasons. That's why Johnson is worth his $6.5 million salary. That's why contenders that could use an extra big man, especially ones with dynamic perimeter scorers, should give the Raptors a call as we get closer to the trade deadline, even though Johnson has another year left on his contract.