INDIANAPOLIS -- As the turmoil surrounding the Philadelphia 76ers and Nerlens Noel continues to heat up, the Boston Celtics will continue to be a team talked about as a possible trade partner.
The premise is that Noel has tremendous upside, versatility and could use a new home and the Celtics would be looking at an upgrade because more likely than not, his arrival would signal Amir Johnson’s departure.
But here’s the thing: Noel’s talent is in large part based on the potential he has shown as a rim-protecting shot-blocker with an offensive game that has shown signs of growth.
Johnson’s game isn’t about scoring or blocking shots or any of that stuff that fans and the media obsess about when comparing players.
In his 12th season, there’s a reason why the 6-foot-9 veteran has been in the NBA for so long despite not ever being considered an elite scorer, rebounder or lock-down defender.
“He doesn’t care about numbers; never has,” an assistant GM that tried to trade for him when he played for Toronto, told CSNNE.com. “All he wants to do is win games, and he figured out real quick he can do that by just being an energy guy who can run the floor, defend and grab some rebounds. Teams that win and win consistently, they almost all have an Amir Johnson-type player.”
Which is why as much as the Celtics are interested in bolstering their roster, there’s no indication that they are in a hurry to jettison Johnson off to another team to make that happen.
That point is driven home even more so now that the Celtics’ preferred starting five -- Isaiah Thomas, Avery Bradley, Jae Crowder, Johnson and Al Horford -- are all relatively healthy and have had some time to play together.
Boston (16-12) now has the third-best record in the East, fueled by a three-game winning streak which has included some memorable performances like Isaiah Thomas’ 44 points, a career-high, in Boston’s 112-109 overtime win at Memphis.
But even in that win, Johnson’s imprint was felt on hustle plays such as sealing off his man to allow Avery Bradley to swoop in for a rebound, or being a central figure in Memphis’ Marc Gasol needing 22 shots (he made 8) to score 24 points.
Johnson is well aware of his critics who don’t believe he contributes enough to the Celtics’ success. But he knows -- and just important, his teammates know -- how important Johnson’s job is to the team’s success.
“I’ve been in the league long enough to recognize and know what it is,” Johnson told CSN’s Kyle Draper. “It doesn’t bother me as long as we’re winning games. When we lose, that bothers me. As long as we’re winning, everybody is happy.”
One of Johnson’s biggest fans on the Celtics roster is Avery Bradley.
Following Boston’s 105-95 win at Miami earlier this week, a game in which Thomas had 23 points, Bradley himself had 20 and Al Horford (17 points, seven rebounds and eight assists) had a near triple-double, Bradley singled out the play of Johnson as being one of the game’s biggest keys.
In that game, Amir had an offensive rebound percentage of .118 which was tops on the team and his overall rebound percentage of .148 also led the Celtics.
“Amir makes a lot of winning plays,” Bradley said at the time.
When asked about Johnson’s value, Bradley replied, “it’s big time. I tell him that before every game, your energy gets us going. He does all the little things. He’s always diving on the ball. He’s boxing out for us to get rebounds. He’s running the floor, getting us open shots. He helps our team out so much. It’s not in the box score, but we appreciate him. He helps our team out a lot.”
Johnson has been particularly strong for the Celtics when it comes to contesting shots this season.
Because of the nature of the NBA, big men have to defend the perimeter as well as the paint in order to be effective.
This season, opponents are shooting 8.5 percent less from 3-point range against Johnson than what they shoot normally.
You see similar dips when Johnson is contesting two-pointers (3.0 percent drop), shots less than six feet from the rim (5.9 percent drop), less than 10 feet (2.7 percent drop) and shots greater than 15 feet (8.3 percent drop).
Those numbers speak to the versatility that Johnson has delivered defensively this season for the Celtics.
And he does this with the knowledge that some games he’ll start and play limited minutes, or potentially come off the bench as he did earlier this season against Houston.
Brad Stevens recently indicated that there might be more games later this season in which he’ll bring Johnson off the bench and have him replaced in the starting lineup by Jonas Jerebko.
Like any player, Johnson wants to play as much as he possibly can, every game.
But he understands why Stevens will make that decision and just as important, so do his teammates which Johnson believes is key to making such sacrifices work.
“As long as everybody buys in to what our strategy is, it’ll be fine,” Johnson said. “We have to all have a collective team effort just to buy in and do our job. Once we do that, we’re gonna go a long way.”