There was a time after he signed with Miami in February when Joe Johnson thought he was going to finish his career with the Heat.
Pat Riley, who had found a way to squeeze the seven-time All-Star onto the roster and avoid the luxury tax after the Brooklyn Nets bought Johnson’s contract out, told the veteran guard shortly after he arrived he could be part of a dangerous combination with Dwyane Wade for at least a few seasons.
But it obviously didn’t turn out that way. Johnson, 35, returned to AmericanAirlines Arena as a member of the Utah Jazz on Saturday night and said he pretty much knew after the Heat was eliminated in the second round of the playoffs the franchise was going to head in a different direction and build around youth.
“I mean there was [interest on my part to come back], but nobody who was 30 and up was coming back,” Johnson said about an hour before Saturday’s tipoff. “I saw that early in free agency. So, for me, there was nothing to talk about [with the Heat in free agency]. My stint here was very brief. I appreciated it, but I knew where they were trying to go once free agency started.”
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Johnson, who signed a two-year, $22 million contract with the Jazz only a couple days into the start of free agency, said the Heat never reached out to him once free agency began. But he said he wasn’t bothered by it.
“They got a great group of [young] guys over there who are very productive,” said Johnson, who played 38 games total for the Heat last season including the playoffs. “I witnessed it. I’ve been a part of it. Those guys work hard, and they’re building toward the future. Giving them this chance — experience is the best teacher. So you put them out there and let them learn throughout the season.”
Despite the Heat’s move toward youth, Johnson said, he was still very surprised to see Wade leave for Chicago. He said he thought Wade would finish his career in Miami.
“We had a group text — me, him, [Udonis Haslem], Dorrell Wright — throughout the summer,” Johnson said. “We were texting back and forth, but it wasn’t about what we were going to do or what D-Wade was going to do. It was just generally checking on each other during the summer to see how we were doing. I was very surprised [he left].”
Johnson said the Jazz were one of the first teams to reach out to him last season when the Nets first bought out his contract. But he thought the Heat was a better fit that could go deep in the playoffs. He thinks the Heat would have beaten Toronto had Hassan Whiteside not been injured and lost for the series in Game 3.
“Hassan was the biggest key to what we were trying to do,” Johnson said. “Obviously, we played a lot through D-Wade, but in the East having a rim protector, center in the low post who had a nice touch, could score, make free throws and anchor the defense by himself, I thought the sky was the limit.”
Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said before Saturday’s game he absolutely loves and misses Johnson. Justise Winslow said he felt like he learned a lot from Johnson in their short time together as teammates, including how he uses his body coming off pick and rolls.
“He was just the perfect injection personality-wise and skill-set wise for us last year,” Spoelstra said. “We really became a dangerous offensive team after the All-Star break for a lot of reasons, and Joe was one of them.”
Guard Wayne Ellington, who sustained a bad right bruise to his right quad in the Heat’s final preseason game, said he’s started running in the pool and could begin running on the court in the coming days. Still, he said, there’s no exact timetable for his return.
“There’s still some pain when I bend it to a certain extent,” Ellington said. “I’m obviously trying to get all the bruising out and at the same time get the strength back.”
Ellington, a valuable three-point threat, said he’s been taking set shots and occasional jumpers — without running and stepping into them — to try and keep his shooting stroke in line while he has been out.
“Everybody I talked to said it was the worst contusion they’ve ever seen,” Ellington said. “That came from a few doctors. I knew it was bad, and I knew it was going to take some time to get right. But they’re also telling me they’re surprised how fast I’m healing from it.”
▪ The Heat will honor guard Rodney McGruder and assistants Dan Craig and Octavio de la Grana in a pregame ceremony Thursday night before its game against Milwaukee and present the trio with the NBA Development League championship rings they won as members of the Sioux Falls Skyforce last season.
Sioux Falls opened the season Saturday night. A championship banner was raised, and returning players were presented with their rings.
“For them to take the time out to showcase the accomplishments we achieved in Sioux Falls here on this stage, it shows how seriously the Heat organization takes the D-League,” McGruder said.