Free agency is framed by the best players available and the biggest salaries possible. Most consummated deals, however, are conducted on more moderate grounds. For every grand overture to put a team over the top, the league sees dozens of transactions to match player and team on a smaller scale, in most cases involving players who will never sniff an All-Star berth and teams that aren’t realistically poised to contend for the title.
Such is the case in the two-year, $24-million arrangement reached between former Raptor Amir Johnson and the Boston Celtics, as first reported by Yahoo Sports. Structurally speaking, Boston is still several pieces away from challenging even the better teams in the Eastern Conference. The Celtics don’t have the caliber of talent necessary to establish the sense of order and balance befitting a contender, even if the young players and picks Celtics president Danny Ainge has stored away suggest that Boston should ultimately get there. In the meantime, they’ll stay competitive by stocking Brad Stevens’s rotation with smart, hard-working players who don’t compromise the team’s progressive interests.
Johnson, in a sense, works as a placeholder. This deal will likely take him over the cusp of his playing prime, lasting until his 30th birthday if not sooner. Steve Bulpett of the Boston Herald reported that the second year of Johnson’s contract would be unguaranteed, leaving the Celtics with the flexibility to bail after next season should Johnson’s health or play become any kind of problem. In its entirety, this contract is a good value for its short, adaptable term in a world where Tristan Thompson commands five years at $80 million.
That much helps to soften any reasonable concern for injury. Johnson has been very effective when healthy, but wore down in each of the last several seasons with lingering ankle and back injuries. That trend makes a two-year deal palatable and a one-year commitment ideal. Boston can plug Johnson into the lineup to satisfy a rim-protecting void that no other big on the roster could while mixing it up inside and fulfilling the team’s interests in perimeter shooting (Johnson, while not especially prolific, hit 35% of his three-pointers over the past two seasons). Johnson's base per-game stats don't jump off the page. Where he thrives is in the smaller contributions that make basketball teams go, and those – along with stronger per-minute projections – made him a consistent and crucial ingredient of Toronto's best lineups.
Johnson also gives the Celtics useful salary filler in the event that a superstar becomes available via trade. Gerald Wallace’s $10.1 million expiring contract serves a similar role in the immediate future, though Johnson’s unguaranteed second season gives his deal a longer shelf life should Boston look to make significant moves around next year’s draft or beyond. This also depends on the exact guarantee date of Johnson’s contract. That Johnson is a useful, usable player might makes him more appealing in certain deals that Wallace’s empty contract would not; there's a very real distinction in value between Wallace's deal and that of a quality two-way big like Johnson.
Boston has six incoming first-round pick and six incoming second-round picks along with its own store of first rounders. It has intriguing young players like Marcus Smart, Avery Bradley, Isaiah Thomas, Kelly Olynyk, Tyler Zeller, Jared Sullinger, James Young under contract, and 2015 rookies Terry Rozier and R.J. Hunter in the fold. Now it has another foundational salary with Johnson that it could use to build a blockbuster trade around and a player who will actually contribute in the meantime. The Celtics have gotten better while keeping on their toes.