PF: Amir Johnson, Toronto Raptors
Johnson somehow has the lowest usage rate in the Toronto starting lineup, which features possible All-Stars in Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, as well as promising youngsters in Jonas Valanciunas and Terrence Ross. Johnson falls somewhere in between those two camps. At 26, he’s still young, but he’s also old enough and experienced enough to not be saddled with the expectations of limitless untapped potential. He’s incredibly productive and efficient, but his usage is such that he doesn’t put up the numbers necessary for All-Star consideration.
Johnson is the only starter whose usage has gone down since the Raptors traded Rudy Gay to the Sacramento Kings in early December, but rather than seeing the efficiency boost that normally follows a decrease in usage rate, his shooting efficiency has also gone down since that point, especially in January where he has struggled badly from the field (44.7 percent compared to 59.1 percent through December).
Johnson, though, has still been incredibly helpful on defense even while he’s struggled from the field. Though he is not exactly an imposing figure near the rim given his 6-foot-9, 210 pound frame, only 12 players that have appeared in at least 10 games have forced opponents into a lower at-rim field goal percentage among those challenging at least 5.0 shots per game in that area, according to the SportVU data.
The Toronto defense has been about a point better per 100 possessions with Johnson on the floor this season, and the Raps force more turnovers, grab a larger share of available defensive rebounds, allow fewer second chance points, points off turnovers, and and fast break points, and foul less often with him on the floor as well.
On offense, Johnson is functional as a one-on-one player, having scored on 24 of his 50 shots taken out of isolation and post-ups so far this according, per Synergy. Where he makes his hay offensively is in the pick and roll, which he runs extraordinarily well with Lowry, and via offensive rebounds and cuts. He’s shooting well over 60 percent on plays finished via cut and offensive rebound, which account for more than one quarter of his plays, according to Synergy.
He knows how to find soft spots in the defense, and you can often find him ducking in on the opposite block when Lowry runs a pick and roll with Valanciunas at the top of the key. Cuts to the middle of the lane after setting an off-ball screen for a wing player are also pretty commonplace, and that’s always a good way to find yourself open for an easy hoop.
Johnson is a very versatile pick and roll player as well, able to roll or pop, run screens high or side, and finish with an immediate dunk or layup, a quick jumper, or make a move to find a shot that may not immediately present itself upon catching the ball on the roll. Possessions as a roll man account for over a quarter of Johnson’s total, and he’s created a very respectable 1.02 points per play (PPP) on those, good enough to place in the top 50 in the league. As in his all-around game, Johnson’s pick and roll play is low usage, but efficient.
His January struggles should not overshadow the fact that he’s had a good season, and it’s his versatility and willingness to play a smaller role than his numbers suggest he should that helps Toronto’s new starting lineup shine.
C: DeAndre Jordan, Los Angeles Clippers
We talked about Jordan’s improved rebounding in this space earlier this season, and everything we said then still holds true today. To recap and amend slightly what we said then:
Setting aside the per-game, per-minute, and rebound rate jumps Jordan has made this season, a look at the SportVU player tracking numbers courtesy of STATS LLC shines an even brighter light on Jordan’s improvement. Among the 23 players averaging at least 15 rebound chances per game (defined as being within 3.5 feet of a rebound), none is converting a higher percentage of those chances into rebounds than Jordan, who is
one of two playersthe only player over 70 percent along with Andre Drummond. Lest you think that Jordan’s rebounds just fall into his lap, know that Jordan is also one of just three players averaging at least 5.0 “contested” rebounds (where an opponent is within 3.5 feet of the rebound) per game.
Maybe the most impressive thing about Jordan’s improved rebounding is that his front court mate Blake Griffin is also grabbing a larger share of available rebounds this season. This lets us know that Jordan’s likely not just capitalizing on rebounds that used to belong to Blake. Jordan was always a good rebounder thanks to his length, athleticism, and proximity to the basket, but he’s taken it to a new level this year.
Only four players (Drummond, Dwight Howard, Jordan Hill, and DeMarcus Cousins)Among players averaging at least 15 minutes per game, none have grabbed a larger share of available rebounds while on the floor than Jordan (Drummond is tied).
Jordan’s biggest strides, though, have come on defense, where he is not quite the best defensive player in the league that Doc Rivers professes he is, but he’s become much better. Jordan has found a way to block more shots and steal more passes while fouling at the same rate he did last season, and he’s already equaled his total of 3.2 Defensive Win Shares from last season, in 38 fewer games.
Like most of his teammates, Jordan credits his defensive improvement to Doc Rivers’ system, as well as improved chemistry and communication with Griffin along the back line. Whereas last year the Clippers’ pick and roll coverages were haphazard and disorganized, this year there are standard things everyone does.
While Griffin mostly jumps out at perimeter ball handlers to leverage his athleticism and keep guards away from the paint, Jordan drops back near the free throw line and aids the man defending the ball handler in forcing that player into a pocket of space near the free throw line, a la Rivers’ Celtics teams. Jordan’s length and quick feet allow him to sit in that driving lane and wall off the paint, while still being able to recover to his own man before a pass can be threaded through the lane on the roll. His long arms have also helped the Clippers hold opponents to the 2nd-lowest PPP in the league on plays finished by pick and roll ball handlers.
Of course, he is not infallible, and the mistake he most often makes is hanging with the ball handler a beat too long, allowing his man to find open space either for a jumper or a layup, like on this pick and roll with Ramon Sessions and Al Jefferson.
The hiccups he has defensively have been fewer and farther between this season than last, though, and that’s helped the Clippers to the league’s 8th-best defense despite lacking the personnel for an elite defense. Chris Paul and Darren Collison are solid enough on the ball, but players can shoot over them and run them into successive ball screens to ditch them along the perimeter. Jamal Crawford is a clear minus defensively. JJ Redick and Jared Dudley are league average-ish defenders, but neither can be considered a stopper. Griffin is improved, but he’s still not an overwhelming positive defensively. Somehow they have all combined to forge a defensive unit that rates in the league’s top 10 in multiple configurations (i.e. Paul-Redick-Dudley-Griffin-Jordan, Collison-Redick-Dudley-Griffin-Jordan, Paul-Crawford-Dudley-Griffin-Jordan, etc.)
Griffin is LA’s primary screen and roll man on the other end of the floor, but Jordan is about as good a secondary pick and roller as you can ask for. He’s shooting 66.7 percent and averaging 1.15 PPP as a roller this year, and those plays make up 11 percent of his total. It’s not high usage, but it’s hyper-efficient.
Most of Jordan’s offense comes via cuts, offensive rebounds, and in transition, three play types that account for 64 percent of his total. Combined, he’s shooting 64.5 percent on those types of plays, and he’s drawn fouls on nearly 10 percent of those plays as well. He doesn’t very often make his shots when he heads to the free throw line, but that’s a story for another day. Jordan’s low usage, hyper-efficient offense and his improvement on defense are enough to make him our starting center here.