MIAMI – The Heat have several decisions to make this summer when it comes to the 2017-18 roster, but none bigger than those on guard Dion Waiters and forward James Johnson.
The Heat must determine if they want their two breakout players to return and if so, at what price. Both dramatically increased their value this season with many wondering if they may have priced themselves out of the Heat’s range.
Johnson and Waiters have been linked since the season ended Wednesday for many reasons, not the least being owner Micky Arison’s Instagram account.
Arison posted a picture late Friday with his arms around Johnson and Waiters (and all three wearing bunny ears) with the caption:
The miamiheat future looks very bright
Arison knew exactly what he was doing posing with Johnson and Waiters.
Both players were asked about the picture Monday.
“I’m home,” Johnson said. “That’s what it feels like. I love it here. I had a great season. I love the culture here and I’m very passionate about this place.”
Said Waiters: “It’s all about the vibe. You really can’t determine but it’s a good vibe. That’s all I know.”
Johnson, Waiters and their teammates returned to AmericanAirlines Arena Monday for their exit interviews, the first official team meeting since it was eliminated from the playoffs on the final night of the regular season. Miami defeated the Wizards but needed help and learned its season had ended when both the Pacers and Bulls won to clinch the Nos. 7 and 8 seeds in the East.
On that night, the team was despondent. Coach Erik Spoelstra took his spot in the postgame interview room, sitting in silence for close to 40 seconds fidgeting and searching for the right words.
When Spoelstra returned to the same seat Monday, he smiled and said: “Don’t worry, I won’t sit here in silence. I feel a little bit better today.”
The players, too, have had time to process the ending and were much more upbeat, although still disappointed they are watching the playoffs and not participating in them.
But they also have had time to reflect. And for Johnson and Waiters, it was about trusting that they would get that opportunity by joining the Heat last summer and taking advantage.
Now, both will face major decisions. Both players will be sought-after free agents in July, having played themselves into contracts worth millions more than they earned this season, with Spoelstra saying about both: “The timing was right” for two players “that had been kicked around.”
Johnson signed a one-year, $4 million deal last summer after five stops in his previous seven seasons, two with Toronto.
Now he could be looking at a contract about four times that, even at the age of 30.
Johnson posted career highs in several categories including points, rebounds and assists. He was asked how he weighs what likely will be his final opportunity to hit the NBA lottery against the loyalty for the organization that he credits for finally bringing out the best in his game.
“That it’s not always greener on the other side,” he said. “That’s the only thing that’s going on in the back of my head right now.
“I might not have the same opportunities that I had this year. … to get out of the box and play the way that I can to contribute to winning. Who knows if I can get that on another team? Money has nothing to do with that. Basketball, I love the game and I love it here.”
The 6-foot-8 Johnson established himself as one of the more versatile players in the league with an ability to initiate the offense from the point guard position and play center. He also can defend virtually every position on the floor.
The league showed last summer it takes one team to make an offer he can’t refuse – like the Lakers giving Luol Deng $72 million for four years.
“That’s something the family and I will have to talk about and ultimately it’s the best for me,” Johnson said.
The market for Waiters wasn’t exploding last summer, forcing him to wait until July 25 to sign a two-year deal with just less than $6 million, with a player option around $3 million for 2018-19. Waiters will decline that option and now is in position to earn somewhere north of $15 million a year and possibly up to $20 million considering he’s likely to be the best shooting guard on the market.
“I just think the opportunity paid off,” he said. “Everything I talked to Pat (Riley) about this summer came to fruition. One thing about Pat, he’s a man of his word. That’s why I chose to take that. I said it was never about the money. It was all about opportunity.”
Waiters’ season took off at the midway point after missing 20 games with a groin injury, but ended prematurely after spraining his left ankle in mid-March. Waiters, 25, played a career low 46 games, averaging 15.8 points.
When healthy, he prospered in Miami’s drive-and-kick game, especially playing alongside Goran Dragic.
“It was a little bit disappointing that he wasn’t able to get 75 plus games in there,” Spoelstra said. “I think we would have had a lot better chance to, all of us, be able to see what he’s capable of.”
Waiters was asked if he would accept less money to return to the Heat.
“Whatever it takes,” he said. “I can’t answer that right now. I can’t control that.”