Defending Amir's Defense

Monday, March 30, 2009

The Pistons have two talented young power forwards in Jason Maxiell and Amir Johnson. Both are high-energy players who excel at offensive rebounding, shot blocking, and finishing around the basket. While neither player has well-polished skills, they make up for their shortcomings by playing with boundless energy.

Maxiell does many things better than his younger counterpart. Maxiell makes better decisions defending the pick and roll, is a stronger post defender, has a more polished post game, and makes far fewer mistakes such as setting moving screens or committing unnecessary fouls. It’s more difficult to pinpoint the areas where Johnson outshines Maxiell. Johnson is a better rebounder and shot blocker, but Maxiell is ahead in most other statistical categories, which is reflected in his lead of nearly two points in PER.

Despite what the statistics say, Amir Johnson is a better player than Maxiell. While Maxiell leads to Johnson in most traditional statistics, Johnson dominates one crucial category: opponents points allowed.

With Jason Maxiell on the court this season, the Pistons have allowed 111.8 points per 100 possessions (the league average is near 105) With Amir Johnson on the court the Pistons give up just 102.1 point per 100 possessions. Offensively, the Pistons offense gains a modest 0.6 points per 100 possessions with Maxiell in the game as opposed to Johnson. In total, the Pistons are a net 9.1 points per 100 possessions better with Johnson on the court than with Maxiell. To put that in perspective, a net swing of 9.1 points per 100 possessions is roughly the difference between a 30-win team and a 55-win team in today’s NBA. The numbers were similar last season, when the Pistons were a net 8.1 points per 100 possessions better with Johnson on the court than with Maxiell.

The explanation for the disparity lies in the “little things” that do not show up in box scores. Amir Johnson is four inches taller than Maxiell and is therefore much better at contesting shots. Johnson also has better lateral quickness which allows him to close on perimeter shooters and recover to the basket more quickly than Maxiell can. Also, partly as a result of the height disparity, Johnson is much better at keeping possessions alive on the offensive end. Even on plays where Johnson does not corral the offensive rebound, he frequently tips missed shots to teammates or causes an opponent to knock the ball out of bounds. Lastly, Johnson’s superior defensive rebounding and shot blocking are crucial.

What Amir Johnson lacks in skill and basketball IQ, he makes up for with size, athleticism, and tenacity. Jason Maxiell is also athletic and plays with as much tenacity as anyone, but the reality is that 6’6 players who struggle to shoot or dribble rarely survive in the NBA. It should also be noted that whereas Johnson has the enormous hands one would expect on a 6’10 athlete, Maxiell has relatively small hands for an interior player. Numerous balls near Maxiell end up just out of his reach or bounce off of his hands.

The goal of an NBA team is to outscore its opponent. On a per possession basis, the Pistons have done that better with Amir Johnson on the court than with any other player on the team. His minutes have been jerked around all season, but it is time Amir Johnson becomes a permanent fixture in the rotation.


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Welcome to Count That Baby And A Foul. I am an obsessed Piston fan with a passion for sports journalism. Here at CTBAAF, I intend to offer opinions on the Pistons and the NBA as a whole.

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