The Philadelphia 76ers made their second eight-figure signing of the 2017 free-agent period on Saturday evening, agreeing to terms on a one-year, $11 million contract with veteran big man Amir Johnson, according to Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.
The new deal comes hours after Sixers general manager Bryan Colangelo secured the services of veteran shooting guard J.J. Redick for the princely sum of $23 million for one season. In one afternoon, Colangelo added 23 combined years of pro experience to a Philly squad composed almost entirely of players 26 and under who have three or fewer years of NBA service time.
The message: we’re not ready to contend yet, and we’re not going to shell out massive contracts that might impede our ability to extend core pieces like Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and Markelle Fultz down the line, but we are willing to pay big money for the short term for respected old heads who can help teach our talented youth how to win.
Johnson, 30, spent the last two seasons with the Boston Celtics, making 153 starts as a dirty-work power forward for head coach Brad Stevens. He averaged 6.5 points, 4.6 rebounds and 1.8 assists in 20.1 minutes per game in Boston last year, serving as a tone-setter and locker-room presence on a Celtics team that rose to the No. 1 seed in the East and made the Eastern Conference finals before bowing out to the Cleveland Cavaliers.
He’s lost some lift and athleticism over the years, and is no longer as effective and efficient a screener and defensive disruptor as he was during his years with the Toronto Raptors. But the 12-year vet — who entered the league as an 18-year-old with the Detroit Pistons in 2005, ranking as one of the last preps-to-pros products allowed to enter the NBA draft — can help on the glass, move the ball in the half-court offense, offer some rim protection and generally be in the right place at the right time without making major mistakes.
The Sixers’ depth chart is chock full of athletic specimens who can perform all manner of great big physical feats. Johnson’s value, at this stage, lies in the mastery of the little things. If he can help guys like Embiid, Dario Saric, Jahlil Okafor, Richaun Holmes and rookie big man Jonah Bolden sand off the rough edges of their games and learn how to become the kind of pros who can maintain their value as they move from their teens and early 20s into NBA old age, he’ll have helped the Sixers along their path from collection of theoretical assets toward actual contention. And if he can offer some good minutes off the bench at the four and five spots along the way, grab a few rebounds, get some dudes open with solid screens and finish some dump-offs around the rim along the way, so much the better.
That said: even in the post-salary-cap-spike NBA, $11 million is a pretty steep price tag for an expectation of sage advice and middling productivity. Yes, the Sixers still had money to burn after importing Redick, but it might be worth wondering if that kind of outlay will be worth it for a big man who, in a perfect world, would see limited floor time while the likes of Embiid, Saric, Simmons, Holmes and Okafor soak up most of the frontcourt minutes.
That said: you don’t have to go too far back in the injury reports to see that things haven’t exactly gone according to plan for Philly’s forwards and centers in the recent past. Johnson provides some stability and insurance in the event of the 76ers’ expected frontliners missing time, and does so while also offering a steady hand, example and echo for Redick as he enters the locker room.
One veteran presence cries out in the darkness. Two start a culture.
— Paul Flannery (@Pflanns) July 1, 2017
With Philly’s roster now sitting at 15 players and about $15 million worth of salary-cap space left, it’s likely that the Sixers are done dealing in free agency, with the possible exception of an extension for defensive-minded small forward Robert Covington. It’s too early to start printing up playoff tickets, even in an Eastern Conference weakened by the departures of Jimmy Butler and Paul George. But things certainly seem to be trending upward in Philadelphia, as Colangelo, Brett Brown and company try to expedite the move from “Process” to results.
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