As the NBA Playoffs wind down and the free agency period nears, Toronto Raptors fans are preparing for an inevitable, somber reality. On June 30th, the contract of long-time fan favourite power forward Amir Johnson will expire; it seems more likely than not that his tenure with the Raptors has come to an end.
It's not hard to see why the Raptors will be hesitant to bring back Johnson. While his birth certificate says he is 28, the deteriorating ankles he hobbled on all season suggest that his body has aged at an accelerated rate during his ten-year run in the league.
So do his numbers.
A once dependable rebounder, Johnson has seen his impact on the boards noticeably depreciate in his two most recent campaigns:
Johnson's drop-off on the glass was one of the contributing factors to the Raptors ranking 24th in Defensive Rebounding Rate and 22nd in Total Rebounding Rate this season - a weakness that was amplified in the playoffs when the Raptors pulled down an abhorrent 44.4 percent of the rebounds against the Wizards.
Johnson's physical breakdown has also spawned a decline in his defensive ability. The man usually charged with cleaning up other Raptors' mistakes worked with a broken mop handle all-season, and it showed in his defensive metrics. After accounting for 3.1 Defensive Win Shares in 2013-14, the Los Angeles native saw that number chopped almost in half this year, while his Block Percentage slipped as well.
After making $7 million in the final year of his deal, it's reasonable to suggest that Johnson and his agent will be seeking a raise (or at the very least an equal payday) for what will likely be his final big contract as a pro. Based on the years he has accrued, it seems safe to infer that his recent downturn will continue as he approaches and enters his thirties. For those reasons, the best decision for the Raptors to make is to allow their former heart and soul walk away.
That decision will come with the need to fill the void. With ample cap room and an abundance of draft picks at his disposal, there will be no shortage of options for Masai Ujiri to entertain this summer.
He could look to bring in a free agent of a similar - or even lesser - skill set than Johnson and have him occupy third-big duty while pushing Patrick Patterson into the starting line-up. If Ujiri is content with scaling back the experience-level of his bigs, he may inject his front court with the youth of his 20th-overall draft pick, and focus his cap resources on improving his squad on the wings. And then of course, there is always the chance that the Raptors' foul-mouthed boss could surprise the jaded Toronto fan base by landing a significant upgrade via free agency.
Here are some of players who would make sense for the Raptors to target - even if some may be pipe dreams at best.
Realistic and Reasonably Priced
Kyle O'Quinn - Unrestricted Free Agent (Restricted if given Qualifying Offer from Orlando)
Kyle O'Quinn looks glaringly similar to Johnson circa 2009, just before he signed on with the Raptors. Like Johnson was, O'Quinn is a former second-round pick, struggling to carve out a consistent role for himself on a team with a crowded front court, despite illustrating a clear ability to be a valuable role player in the NBA.
After a 2013-14 performance that saw him produce the only positive NET rating (+0.4) on a 23-win Magic team, O'Quinn looked like a candidate to make a significant step in his development. That very well might have happened were it not for an ankle injury suffered in the first game of this season sidelining him for 15 games.
Even though the start of his season was disrupted by the injury, O'Quinn posted respectable numbers in 36 games before coach Jacque Vaughn was fired on February 4th (6.8 points, 4.1 rebounds, one block in 18 minutes per game) - including a monstrous 21 and 11 performance on the road against Golden State on December 2nd. He fell out of interim coach James Borrego's rotation though, and only managed 3.3 points and 3.2 boards the rest of the way, relegated to DNP-CD status 16 times in the final 30 games.
As far as his potential goes, it's once again hard not to draw direct comparisons with Johnson. Rim protection, rebounding and an improving touch around the hoop are all components of the 25-year-old's two-way repertoire. Before the up-and-downs of this past year, O'Quinn averaged about 13 points and 11 rebounds per 36 minutes in his first two seasons. Johnson's per-36 stats in his career-best 2012-'13 season: 12.6 points and 9.5 rebounds. Should O'Quinn receive a qualifying offer from his team, Orlando will be able to match any Raptors offer, but it would be worth a shot for a player with the same skill set as Johnson, with far fewer miles on his legs.
Thomas Robinson - Unrestricted Free Agent
It hasn't gone according to plan for Thomas Robinson. Once the highly-touted, fifth-overall pick in 2012, the Kansas product has donned four different uniforms in three seasons, and only just started to carve himself out a niche in the NBA as a maniacal force on the glass.
And boy did he ever run with that newly discovered identity. Following a deadline deal from Portland to Denver and his subsequent release from the Nuggets, Robinson landed with Philadelphia. In 22 games with the Sixers, he posted the best stretch of his career, with a per-game line of 8.8 points and 7.7 rebounds in just over 18 minutes per contest and a surprisingly good PER of 19.3.
His offensive game is limited, as he has yet to figure out how to shoot with any sort competency outside of 10 feet. But at just 24, there is room for him to continue to grow into a well-rounded role player. As a third big man who would come cheap, he's worth targeting. Throughout all of his tribulations as a pro, Robinson has pulled down 18.7 percent of available rebounds - and 24.5 percent of defensive boards. He might just be a wonderful match for the rebound-starved Raptors.
Montrezl Harrell - Louisville (23rd-ranked prospect, Draft Express)
Athleticism: check. Rebounding acumen: Yes sir. Intensity and competitiveness: most definitely.
If the Raptors are looking to grab a player in the draft that can capture the hearts of Raptors' fans the way Johnson did, Montrezl Harrell is the way to go. The power forward was mentioned as one of the players Toronto should hone in on during March Madness, and that has not changed.
Officially measuring in at just under 6-foot-7 at last week's combine, he may appear too small to take up Amir Johnson's role as the garbage man of the Raptors' defense - but a wingspan reaching over 7-foot-4 more than makes up for his perceived lack of height.
As the best inside force for Rick Pitino's Cardinals this season, Harrell put up 15.7 points and 9.2 boards per game. And while his offensive numbers likely won't translate to the NBA, they don't need to. If he can replicate Johnson's style of play, where he can provide offense on dump-offs, put-backs and the odd pick-and-roll, he will be an ideal long-term replacement for the outgoing forward.
The Dream Scenario
Tristan Thompson - Restricted Free Agent
Ujiri made some headlines at a speaking event in March when he suggested that there will be a Canadian player on the Raptors during his tenure as GM.
"There is no doubt in my mind and I know in my time, there will be a Canadian basketball player playing for Toronto Raptors, 100%" - Masai
— Ryan Wolstat (@WolstatSun) March 10, 2015
The immediate buzz was that he was referring to the new golden boy of Canadian hoops, Andrew Wiggins - despite that being a ridiculous conversation not even worth having for almost a decade. A more plausible line to draw from Ujiri's comments though, is one to Brampton native Tristan Thompson.
Thompson would figure to be the perfect Johnson replacement. As he's currently displaying in the playoffs for Cleveland, he is a tireless rebounder (particularly on the offensive end), doesn't require an offense to be designed around him and has proven to be a very solid defender even without being a rim-protecting monster. Johnson has been all of those things for Toronto.
Blocking Ujiri from pursuing Thompson: his restricted free-agent status, and the probability that the 24-year-old is likely set to receive a major pay raise from the Cavaliers; it pays to share an agent with LeBron James. Therefore, in order to outbid Cleveland for Thompson with an offer sheet this summer, Ujiri would probably have to even further overpay, something that's probably not worth doing for a guy whose ceiling is no higher than that of a super-duper role player.
The names listed above aren't the only ones that have been tossed around as potential Johnson replacements. Early this season, before the Hawks became the juggernaut they evolved into, some Raptors fans were salivating at the potential of adding Paul Millsap as a high profile free agent this summer.
Chalk this one up as highly unlikely, for a few reasons. First off, after leading the 60-win Hawks in scoring this year, it's difficult to imagine Millsap leaving a system that has been so kind to him - especially for a Raptors' offense that features such a guard-heavy offense that would surely cut into his usage numbers. Secondly, despite his offensive brilliance, Millsap saw his rebounding numbers slide this season, hauling in just 13.6 percent of available boards; the fit with Toronto just doesn't seem snug.
A play for LaMarcus Aldridge would obviously be a welcome site, but logic, realism and history suggest that's a signing likely only to take place in a video game.
Ujiri could also look to trade for a Johnson replacement, but it probably would require shipping off a future first-rounder or a roster player - a trade off that would only make sense if the Raptors were bringing in a significant upgrade at the four.
Johnson's successor will most likely come from a long list of impending free agents or from the 20th slot in the draft. A bounty of options will be open to Ujiri, with a handful - O'Quinn, Robinson, Harrell and Thompson - representing the best (potentially) available fits.
And thankfully, if Ujiri somehow manages to strike out on the aforementioned foursome, at least Andrea Bargnani is set to hit the free-agent market this summer as well.