The Miami Heat has some huge roster decisions looming, with impending free agent James Johnson among them.
They’ll have to decide whether it’s wise to give mega-offers to baby whales like Gordon Hayward just as they’ll contemplate reigniting the Dion Waiters Experience. Yet the most interesting offseason issue on my mind is Johnson, a destroyer of souls and a transformed player in every sense.
Miami will obviously look to bring him back but at what cost?
Johnson’s impact was astronomical in Miami’s 30-11 finish. He was a poor man’s LeBron on the season, averaging 16.8 points, 6.5 rebounds, and 4.8 assists, per 36 minutes, with a respectable 48-44 (FG-3FG) shooting split. He ranked second on the team in NBA Math’s Total Points Added (behind Goran Dragic) metric, which measures overall impact.
Miami was 189 points better with Johnson on the court this season versus when he was on the bench, which was the highest figure on the team by a large margin.
Nobody knows right now what the two-way beast will command in Free Agency but I have a feeling it’s going to be far more than what many are anticipating. I’d be shocked if the 30-year-old didn’t receive offers that more than quadrupled his $4 million salary from this season.
James Johnson buzzer beating poster dunk on Steph Curry pic.twitter.com/SPXXDynLQj
— gifdsports (@gifdsports) January 11, 2017
The evidence is overwhelming and it starts with last summer’s spending frenzy amid a rising salary cap.
- Luol Deng signed a four-year, $72-million deal ($18M per year) with the Lakers on the heels of the then 30-year-old having a rejuvenated season in Miami.
- Timofey Pavlovich Mozgov, 29 at the time, also signed a massive deal with the Lakers, this one paying the overrated stiff $64 million over four years ($16M per year).
- Joakim Noah signed a four-year deal with the Knicks worth $72 million ($18M per season) despite being 31 years old at the time, coming off a blah, injured season in Chicago.
These players were all similar to Johnson in age at the time of their signings. However, considering Johnson’s combination of defensive versatility, size, respectable shooting, and ability to both create and finish, he’s the prototypical big man in today’s NBA and a far more desirable player now than any of those three were last summer. Yes, the Knicks and Lakers have been run by boneheads but there are plenty more of those types of front offices littered throughout the league. All it takes is one team to ramp up a player’s value.
Compound the aforementioned details with the salary cap increasing again, from $94 million to an estimated $101 million, along with the fact that an estimated 12 teams will have over $30 million in cap space, per Basketball Insiders, and it’s not implausible to expect Johnson to get offers in the $20 million-per-season range. Before you scream, remember this number is not what it was just two years ago.
Now I have no inside information on what types of offers Johnson will receive. I’m merely looking at the evidence and attempting to read between the lines.
Let’s say the Heat decides to bring Johnson back on a three-year deal worth $60 million. This would leave around $20 million in space, which would make signing Hayward a likely impossibility (his max outside Utah starts at $31 million a season).
The Heat could theoretically still sign Waiters but they’d essentially be bringing back the same a team, not factoring in the first-round pick and any potential trades. It was a fun, quality roster but realistically one that would have a difficult time contending, even in the East. Boston is booming with assets, Toronto is expected to bring its core back, and that semi-talented dude named LeBon is still lurking.
We have to remember that Johnson has only made around $17 million for his career before taxes. It’s a boatload of money but I don’t think anyone would blame him for seeking to maximize his earnings while he’s still in his prime. He’s never had that monster deal that has made other veterans more susceptible to take less later in their careers.
If I’m Pat Riley, my No. 1 priority remains netting a star like Gordon Hayward first with Johnson being the second order of business. I’d look to create more cap space by desperately trying to move Josh McRoberts and the $6 million he’ll likely opt into next year, even if it means packaging him with a pick. If Riley’s sculpting a championship-caliber roster, perhaps some of these players would be willing to leave a few million on the table for the sake of contending.
I think my max for Johnson would look something like $50 million over three years. Maybe give him a fourth year if it brings his per-year salary down some. They’d still have some decent flexibility in this scenario.
Miami’s hope has to be Johnson placing a high value on the organization, considering they were instrumental in his transformation from role-playing journeyman to matchup nightmare. Just maybe he will look at Florida’s lack of state income tax along with the many appeals of the franchise and be willing to take less to continue his resurgence in Miami.
With no immediate championship contention on the horizon is the Heat’s culture powerful enough to defeat the mighty dollar?
While the discount is the hope, nobody should blame him if his next contract is strictly business, placing top priority on the biggest possible payday. And if that leads him outside of Miami, James Johnson has earned that right.