It’s midway through the third quarter of a game in which the Milwaukee Bucks are set to enjoy what has been, over the last two seasons, one of the NBA’s more fortunate schedule-related blessings—catching the Philadelphia 76ers on the second night of a back-to-back—when Khris Middleton sees an opening.
Standing at the top of the key, Bucks center John Henson hits him on the right wing, then sprints over to set a screen before he slips it to roll towards the empty strong side. The split-second confusion caused by Henson allows Middleton to turn the corner, get in the middle, and find the two-on-one advantage he was looking for all along.
As the action unfolds, Amir Johnson, an ostensibly fading big man whose margin for error at this exact moment is filament thin, is Philadelphia's only source of resistance.
Slotted in as their anchor, Johnson swivels his hips and slides towards the rim, devoted to putting out the more dangerous of two fires right in front of his face. Middleton, Milwaukee’s second-leading scorer could not look less deterred, though. He is confident he can cover more ground than the retreating backup center in his path. He, like so many others, is underestimating one of the NBA's most reliable players. He, like so many others, is wrong.
Johnson uncoils his knees and stretches both arms high above his head, momentarily transforming his frame into a 2x8 sheet of plywood. A blade of grass couldn’t fit through both bodies as they leave their feet.
Johnson gets a fingertip on the shot, keeps the ball and his body inbounds, then, before he crashes into cameramen seated along the baseline, somehow outlets a pass to Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot to spark a Sixers fast break. It's a subtle, sensational moment in a career filled with hundreds, if not thousands, just like it. And on the very next play, Johnson did this:
Malcolm Brogdon snatches up Luwawu-Cabarrot's miss and slings it 65 feet to Middleton, who's suddenly gifted an opportunity to correct his earlier mea culpa. Instead, once more, Johnson is a one-man wall in the restricted area. He takes away Middleton’s first and second option, and the Bucks eventually turn the ball over, instigating a jubilant eruption from Philadelphia’s entire bench.
Johnson smiled when, 36 hours later, I asked if he remembered that particular sequence.
“Oh, when I was strapping down?” he says. “That’s what I do. I play hard every game, I try not to miss any games, and I just lead by example.”
As the most experienced pro on a roster overflowing with guys who haven’t even been in the league three full seasons, Johnson's on-court effort, mixed with his never-ending reserve of knowledge and experience, allow him to inspire without saying a word. In Philly, he embodies the "leadership by example" aphorism that's powerful enough to establish selfless principles in a setting desperate for that type of guidance.
“Most people would jump," Sixers wing Justin Anderson told VICE Sports when asked about Johnson's hustle against Milwaukee. "I was trailing in transition. He stayed down, he stayed disciplined…He’s not an old dude, like, he can move. He always tries to talk and challenge our guards to one-on-one. He be getting his ass bust, but still, he can move, man. He’s an athlete.”
In a career filled with “no-stats-All-Star” campaigns that help rationalize his staying power, the 13-year veteran—who stands tall as the last player to get drafted by an NBA team straight out of high school—is really putting that reputation to the test this season. Things are a little different than they once were: Johnson is a reserve for the first time in half a decade, and averaging the fewest minutes per game since he turned 21.
His True Shooting is the lowest of his career and 0.2 percent above the league average (not ideal for a big man). So far, this season has been just the second time where Johnson’s team is better when he's off the court. But go deeper into the numbers—and the circumstances from which they sprout—and factor in all the imperceptible/unquantifiable ways he impacts a locker room, and Johnson’s value is clear.
The simplest way to explain his down plus/minus numbers? Joel Embiid. Unlike earlier in his career, when Johnson traded minutes alongside the likes of Jonas Valanciunas and Jared Sullinger, right now the one guy he never, ever plays with is a budding megastar who has a larger two-way impact than some MVP candidates.
Still, it's also understandable that the Sixers haven’t had a good offense with Johnson on the floor. He can’t create his own shot, isn’t a lob threat, lacks any explosiveness around the rim, takes 45 minutes to load up his long ball, and, aside from his ability to see the floor and lead teammates with his passing, is essentially out there to set good screens and grease Philly's ball movement without turning it over. But, again, pointing the blame at Johnson for this team’s struggle to score is, for several reasons, unfair. It doesn't matter who's out there for the 76ers—so long as Embiid isn't, they aren't scoring.
Defensively, the Sixers are league average with Johnson in the game and when he’s beside their other four starters (or Jerryd Bayless in place of J.J. Redick), they perform like the best defense in basketball. His defensive real plus-minus ranks just outside the top ten among power forwards and is top-20 at the five. It’s a small sample size filled with noise, but this speaks to Johnson’s contribution in games where Embiid doesn’t play at all.
(Philly has been outscored by 57 points when they aren’t afforded at least one day of rest in part because they hold Embiid out of the second game of back-to-backs. They’re +121 with one, two, or three days off in-between games.)
“Amir is so underrated," Sixers head coach Brett Brown said before Philly lost to the Brooklyn Nets earlier this week. "For those of you that don’t have the sort of advanced analytics that I have, and you’re going through maybe an eye test or whatever’s on the marketplace, I really don’t know, but we have in-depth analytics that support what I just said times two. He is just extremely valuable…When you really see somebody set a screen. When you see somebody run a lane. Stuff nobody would ever know about on a stat sheet. He’s a team guy and it opens up things for other people."
Johnson’s persistent competence is appreciated by his coaches and teammates. He’s the godfather of playing within his limitations, sacrificing shots, touches, and his body so others can prosper. The market almost caught up to his importance when he became a free agent two summers ago—after the Boston Celtics signed him to a two-year, $24 million contract (with the second year non-guaranteed)—but not quite to the degree it probably should’ve.
Outside of his general on-court reliability that, frankly, at times feels a bit dated, the infectious professionalism Johnson constantly puts on display makes the one-year $11 million contract he’s currently on anything but an overpay.
“You can talk to him about literally anything," Anderson said. "From life, to relationship advice, to financial advice, to fashion advice, to should I do this, should I do that. And if he doesn’t have an answer, he doesn’t feel like he has to tell you something. Sometimes he’ll direct you to someone else. I ask him something everyday. I’m very fortunate to have him as one of my vets.”
So is the Philadelphia coaching staff.
“When you have him in a locker room, and the coaches go in at halftime—good or bad game—you trust the words out of his mouth, that he’s got something intelligent to say," Brown said. "Could be negative, could be positive, but it’ll be real. And those types of voices are critical when you’ve got a bunch of 20-year-olds listening. I just like him. I trust him, I respect him. And because of that he has been Joel Embiid’s backup five man for the large majority of the year.”
Johnson is not interested in talking about himself. He doesn't spend his free time watching NBA basketball and he couldn’t care less about where Philadelphia is positioned in the standings until 82 games are in the books.
But his faint voice rouses to life when I ask about his young, promising, borderline-incomparable teammates. Before Goran Dragic was awarded the injured Kevin Love's All-Star spot, I asked if he thought Ben Simmons should be the one going.
"Yeah, he should," Johnson said. He should, man. I’m sorry to hear a couple players go down in the East but I think Ben is one of those who should definitely step up and in. He’s a 6’9” point guard. He can see over other guards. He’s fast as hell. You just can’t teach that. He’s a freakish athlete.”
Johnson speaks with the unimpressed tone of someone who’s seen all there is to see, probably because, so far as life in the NBA goes, he basically has. As a journeyman, this serves him well. He'll be an unrestricted free agent this summer, on an ascending team that values its financial flexibility. It’s all but a foregone conclusion that Johnson’s $13.2 million cap hold will be renounced, and next season he’ll almost definitely end up on a new team with different teammates.
Maybe that organization’s goals won’t side with what Philadelphia’s currently are. Maybe they won’t be as competitive or have such a wildly encouraging future. But the future is really not the point when you have the present to deal with. And Johnson knows that worrying about anything that's out of his control is a waste of time and energy.
His daily goal keeps everything in the proper perspective: Stay healthy, and the rest will take care of itself. After he's gone, the Sixers may find that replacing all the off-court ways he helps them win won't be easy. But whichever team signs on will be lucky to have him. No-stats and all.