Saturday, August 3, 2013

More on Amir: His excellent offensive game (with video!)

I asked for ideas for posts. Reddit user "TOPLVL" suggested that I write about Amir Johnson. I complied. If you want me to write an article on something in the NBA, leave a comment in my blog.


I wrote about Amir Johnson a couple of weeks back. Upon reflection, the post was a little egalitarian and theoretical. Sure, I can spout off about how his WP48 is good, and why it's good, but I'm just throwing fancy numbers at you. If you're a fan of wins produced, you already agree that Johnson is good. If you're not, you probably closed the post after the first paragraph.

Today, I decided to analyze Johnson's offense. I'm going to toss out a few cursory numbers, before diving into video (yay!) to illustrate my points. (I apologize in advance for the shitty video quality. Screen video capture software kinda sucks. If anyone has any suggestions, leave a message).

MACRO (advanced shooting numbers)
Let's start with macro. 

Johnson's true shooting percentage is excellent (59%), even for a power forward (average: 53.4%). He shoots 55% from the floor, including 38.5% on three-pointers. He is an average free throw shooter (73%).

His shot attempts breakdown like the following: 

As you can see, he mainly shoots from inside the paint (at the rim, 3-9 feet), and from the (ill-advised) long-two area. This is further illustrated by his shot chart (per NBA stats):

This shot chart shows us two things. One, Johnson is a smart shooter; the majority of his shots come from areas where he can sink them (recall that pie; lots of stuff in the paint and at the rim). Two, Johnson's jumpshot is kinda terrible and he can't be trusted to score outside of the paint.

Okay, but you already know much of this stuff. Johnson's been doing the same shit for the last four years. Every Raptors fan screams at the TV when he winds up for that catapult-like shot, and cheers when he throws it down in the lane. Let's actually break down some of his plays.


First, let me present you his synergy breakdown (per mysynergysports):

Now that you have an idea of his usage, let's break down some of his most frequently used plays.

Pick and Roll Man
This is where Johnson excels. He's a great roll man. In fact, he's probably even better than that rank of 48th would suggest. Synergy doesn't really differentiate between pick and roll (to the basket) or pick and pop (for a jumper). As discussed earlier (and later), Johnson's jumpshot isn't great. However, when he's rolling to the rim, he's unstoppable. 

Consider the following play:

Or, this one:

Johnson's length and athleticism really allows him to attack over-top of defenders. He also keeps the ball high when he's attacking, thus preventing turnovers (2.4 turnovers per 48 minutes; average PF: 2.6; theNBAgeek). He attacks best when going straight towards the basket. Less (dribbling) is more for Johnson.

Johnson is one of the league's best in transition. He's not good at handling the ball, but he's an excellent finisher. Here are some highlights that illustrate this point well:

Or, this great dunk:

Once again, it's his athletic ability and size that allows him to dominate. Johnson is particularly quick, and understands how to get open for passes. James Johnson is nobody's passer, but Amir is able to get open for the dunk on that second video.

Cuts to the Basket
Amir is also a great cutter. He scores 1.28 points per cut, ranking him 60th in the league. Again, I'm starting to sound like a broken record, but he does so well because he's a big target and has the awareness to get open for passes.

And also:

Here, we see two looks from Amir (same play, both from the same game).

On the first one, Chicago's defense doubles up on Gay. Johnson recognizes this, and alertly flashes towards the basket to receive Gay's pass. When he's met by the smaller defender (who rotated over), he was able to calmly collect himself and splash in a hook shot.

On the second play, he hesitates while Gay cuts around him, freezing his defender, and then jumps up to catch the ball near the rim, and puts in a tough basket.

Approximately 16% of Johnson's shots last season were putbacks from offensive rebounds. He's successful at two things. First, his offensive rebounding rate is excellent (11.5% OReb rate per hoopdata). Second, once he's secured the rebound, he is pretty good at putting the ball in the basket (16th in the league). Let's sample two such putbacks:


You guessed it. Johnson's proficiency on putbacks is largely because of his size and athleticism. He also positions himself well for rebounds, and is athletic enough to out-jump his competitors. Finally, when he gets the board, he keeps it high and goes straight up with it. He has a very good second jump (as seen in the second clip) which allows him to rise for his shot while his opponents are still coming down.

That Jumpshot Tho...
Okay, so I've given Johnson a good ballwashing in this post, linking to him dunking and generally being awesome. However, he does have holes in his offensive game. You know what it is, I know what it is and unfortunately, defenders know what it is.

It's this gawd-awful jumpshot:

There's a few things to critique. First, it's really slow. He brings the ball down first, before launching it like a catapult. He really can't get this shot off if the defender is close because it'll likely get blocked. Luckily, he's tall. Still, I'm sure Raptors fans cringe when he shoots.

Second, he's shooting it from some pretty bad spots. He doesn't do it often (go back to the shot chart), but when he does shoot the jumper, he's well outside the paint. This is bad for two reasons; one, he's not a good outside shooter, and two, he's not around the rim to rebound his shot (I just talked about his putbacks and offensive rebounding).

The less he shots this shot, the better. However, there is cause for hope.

First, his jumpshot, however ugly it may currently seem, is much improved from before. In fact, this is mirrored in his percentages over the last few years:

Second, his shooting from the outside might have been a concerted decision from the coaching staff. Most of his outside shots are assisted (~90% for 16-23 feet), suggesting that the coach is running a lot of pick-and-pop for Johnson. If so, this needs to stop, or at least be kept to a minimum. Too many people are breaking their TV's and laptops because of these shots. THINK OF YOUR FANS, CASEY!

Lastly, I'd just like to quickly mention that 58 of his made baskets last season were assisted by Calderon (per NBA stats). My favorite play from the past few seasons was the Calderon-Johnson pick and roll. I don't have monthly splits, so I can't really estimate how Calderon's departure will affect Johnson. 

Hopefully, Lowry will be able to prop up Johnson's productivity in the pick and roll. As fans will remember, Calderon's passes were never difficult or flashy. Rather, they were well-timed and well-placed. If Lowry can do the same, everything will be fine. It's worth mentioning that Lowry assisted on 69 of Johnson's baskets last year (don't give me playing time argument; Lowry's injury = Calderon's trade). 


Well, there you have it. Johnson shot a very high percentage last season because he took most of his shots came from areas where he shot well. A play-by-play breakdown shows that he was excellent in transition and with putbacks, while being very good in the pick and roll and off cuts. His jumpshot leaves a lot to be desired, but he's improved it every year, so there's cause for hope. 

Sure, he's limited. He has almost no "kobe skills" (iso/improvisation skills) to speak of. However, he does have some true, tangible offensive skills. He gets open, is a big target, and shoots efficiently. That might not be as sexy as being able to create off the bounce and land a step-back 20-footer, but over the course of a game, Johnson's offense is very effective.


(Much thanks to mysynergysports, hoopdata, basketball-reference, NBA stats and the NBA geek for data. Shout-out to mysynergysports for the video. Play with the data set here)

As I said earlier, I'm always looking for more topics to write about. If you like this type of analysis, and want to see me write about your favorite play/player or whatever, leave me a message in the comments. Thanks for the read.

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