With a $12 million team option for the Boston Celtics with Amir Johnson, they need to evaluate whether or not they are better off parting ways with one of the most reliable pieces of their front court from last season. The bottom line is that Johnson did nothing to suggest that the Celtics should resign him beyond the initial two year contract, and if he is not a part of their long term plans, they are better off using that extra money and roster space elsewhere this offseason.
Going in another direction, away from Johnson, is more about where the Celtics are right now than a condemnation of Johnson’s play this season. Even if he may not have lived up to his $12 million salary, Johnson did exactly what should have been expected of him.
Johnson finished 0.3 behind his career average with 7.3 points per game, finished 0.6 ahead of his career average with 6.4 rebounds per game and finished 1.1% ahead of his career shooting percentage at 58.5%. Johnson started all but three games he played in and was, by far, the most stable big for the Celtics. The problem is that Johnson gave the kind of contributions that Stevens can undoubtedly find elsewhere, and he does nothing to help their long term future.
Even if the Celtics could find value for Johnson on the court next season, they need to use the extra cap and roster space in order to develop what is one of the weakest front courts in the NBA. The Celtics had one of the most cluttered front courts in the NBA this year but with Johnson’s, Jared Sullinger‘s and Tyler Zeller‘s future all in question, things should be opening up.
They already have Jordan Mickey who needs to take on a bigger role next season and they need to make sure they make the necessary additions this offseason. Even if the Celtics do not find players that are as good as Johnson right now, they need to look for pieces that will get an opportunity to grow and develop in Stevens’ system.
Whether it be through the draft or through free agency, or even through a trade, the Celtics have too many opportunities to improve their front court to ignore it and with no hope for Johnson beyond the second year in his contract, they get almost no benefit from keeping him for an extra season. Johnson was solid, but will not be the difference that makes the Celtics a contender.
The Celtics need to find more offensively dynamic players and more dominant rim protectors. The Celtics benefit from Johnson’s reliability at the rim but a miserably failed attempt to turn him into a three point shooter demonstrates how the Celtics are looking for more dynamic and versatile weapons in their front court. They need shooters and they need athletic finishers in the paint. If the Celtics feel they desperately need the reliability that Johson brought at the rim, then they can surely find that for less than $12 million.
On defense, Johnson did a solid job and was arguably the Celtics’ best rim protector. Unfortunately, the Celtics desperately need to improve their interior defense and, at this point in his career, it is unrealistic to expect Johnson to grow into something more.
The Celtics had all the cap space they needed, making the Johnson acquisition incredibly low risk. The team option in the second year ensured that they had next to no risk with Johnson and with him failing to be a game changer on either end, they need to try and find what they hoped Johnson could become elsewhere.
It may be difficult for the Celtics to immediately find the front court players that will give them the improvements they need. There are plenty of bigs in free agency, including Durant, Whiteside, Howard and Horford. The Celtics will surely try to bring in one of the top free agents but even if they fail to do that, Johnson’s roster spot will be better off with a rookie. The Celtics have 8 total draft picks this year and even if they do not keep all of them, they will need to accommodate a whole collection of new players.
Johnson will certainly be more productive than most of the rookies the Celtics could select but it has become clear that Johnson will never be enough to propel them to a contending team. The Celtics need to find and develop rookies that have the potential to be a dynamic offensive threat, or have the potential to be an imposing defensive force.
The Celtics need to make big changes to their bigs this season and that starts by clearing out the clutter. The Celtics were rarely able to settle into a consistent rotation with their bigs and other than Mickey and Kelly Olynyk, they have very little to look forward to in the future.
It may slightly derail their short term progress but the Celtics need to make sure they develop their front court the way they have developed their back court and they simply cannot do that until they free up the roster space that is taken up by players like Johnson.