Amir Johnson's Back: Why He Belongs on the Toronto Raptors' Bench

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Amir Johnson's Back: Why He Belongs on the Toronto Raptors' Bench
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images
While injured these primal screams have disappeared from Amir Johnson.

There are some pretty bad reasons to injure your lower back.  You know, the ones like not bending your knees to lift heavy boxes. Not taking a break while shovelling snow. Telling your girlfriend, “Sure, baby, we can do it standing up!” Reasons that have you saying, “I should know better.”

Well, banging with the big bodies of the NBA isn’t one of them.

Watching Amir Johnson work to help his Toronto Raptor teammates is impressive. While being a long body, he’s often defending a bigger man. Especially impressive since, at power forward, he’s playing out of position.

6'9" and 210 pounds is fine for a small forward, but that is definitely undersized for where he gets most of his minutes. Yet Johnson's still putting up decent numbers and getting in on the hustle plays.

You don’t need a medical degree to see he’s playing through a good amount of pain: He’s constantly reaching for his back; he’s wincing; he’s slow to get up after being knocked to the hardwood; and, you don’t need to be a professional athlete to know that a back injury is restrictive for everything—from jumping for rebounds to running back on defense.

He signed a healthy contract last offseason, so it’s nice to see he’s trying to earn that paycheck. It demonstrates a passion for basketball and his team. And, when healthy, he can average a solid 12 points and 7 rebounds.

Then, against the Sacramento Kings, I finally saw something I’ve been waiting awhile for: Johnson on the bench. It’s not that I don’t want him in the game. I just don’t want to see him starting.

Raptor fans appreciate the effort. It’s admirable; but the Raptors are a better team with him in the second unit.

We can only hope that head coach Jay Triano takes that winning line-up against the Kings and runs with it even though he put Johnson back into the starter’s role against the Atlanta Hawks.

It means, with Johnson coming off the bench, that a dedicated rebounder is starting—be it Joey Dorsey for now, or Reggie Evans when he returns from injury. These are guys big enough to take the banging load off of Andrea Bargnani. And they also don’t need any offensive touches. There’s enough scoring options in the starting five with Bargs, Demar DeRozan, Linas Kleiza and Jose Calderon.

Therefore, scoring is added to the second unit from the forward position, which is lacking when Johnson starts. This would also give Johnson some weaker defenders, as he’ll see more of the opposing bench players. The reduction in minutes means his back isn’t taxed as much, and, since he’s foul-prone, those will be cut down too. This means Triano can use him more late in the game.

All this becomes amplified once Johnson gets healthy: He’ll really be able to run with Leandro Barbosa and Jerryd Bayless; he can attack more; and he can reach for those ally-oop passes (when’s the last time you saw him do that?).

If his injury keeps him coming off the bench, it will be a blessing in disguise. 

The bench is where his skill set can be most effective. And, maybe, he can grow into a great sixth man.

Now, put down that snow shovel and take a break. The ibuprofen is in the cupboard.

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