Heat forward James Johnson, who becomes a free agent early Saturday morning, said Friday that he would like to remain with the Heat and is willing to wait out a decision by Jazz free agent Gordon Hayward – Miami’s top target - even if the Heat has to put Johnson’s situation on hold for several days.
“I'm a patient guy,” Johnson told me at DJ Irie’s annual golf tournament to benefit the Irie Foundation. “They can take as long as they want. My mindset is winning. I think Hayward can help us win and I'm all for it. They brought me here for a reason and I know they're going after Hayward for a reason and I think his statistics and his numbers that he [produces], he fits in the best here.
“The [Heat] haven't said too much, but all I know is that if he comes here, he'll be great for us.”
That approach is very good news for the Heat, which would stand at risk of having free agents Johnson or Dion Waiters snatched away by another team while awaiting a decision from Hayward.
Waiters hasn’t indicated if he’s willing to wait while the Heat pursues Hayward.
Hayward will meet with the Heat on Saturday, the Boston Celtics on Sunday and the incumbent Utah Jazz on Monday before making a decision.
Whether Miami lures Hayward or another high-end free agent will help determine what the Heat has available to offer Johnson and Waiters.
Free agents can begin speaking with teams at 12:01 a.m. Saturday but cannot sign until July 6.
If Hayward agrees to join the Heat on a max contract – which comes with a first year salary of $29.7 million - Miami’s cap space would shrink to $5.7 million.
But the Heat could carve out another $4 million in space, bringing its available space to $9.7 million in this Hayward scenario, by releasing Josh McRoberts and stretching his cap hits over three years, at $2 million per year.
That scenario would allow the Heat to offer Johnson or Waiters a four-year contract worth nearly $42 million, including five percent annual raises for players without Bird Rights. (Neither Johnson nor Waiters has Bird Rights.)
It’s unlikely the Heat could keep both Johnson and Waiters if Hayward signs with Miami, unless the Heat starts slashing payroll.
Johnson and Hayward share the same agent, Chicago-based Mark Bartelstein, which could help the process.
Johnson said he has no visits scheduled with any teams and hasn’t spoken to the Heat recently about his future, though Heat president Pat Riley has publicly expressed a desire to retain him.
His contact with the Heat has “been let me go in the gym, let me get my work in, let me focus on my craft. We let that business side take care of the business side. Mark Bartelstein is going to take care of his clients, which Hayward and me both belong to.”
Johnson noted “this is the first free agency I've ever got the green light, or the go-ahead, one of those guys that somebody wants right away. With that being said, I'm used to waiting. I'm used to waiting.
“I'm one of the guys that after the roster is filled, then OK, we have enough to bring him. It's a different position I'm in, but I'm used to waiting. The Miami Heat doesn't make mistakes. They're going to bring in who they think we can win with and I'm all for it.”
By the time Hayward makes a decision, likely by midweek next week, it also should become clear what Blake Griffin will do. Griffin has been linked to the Heat, though Hayward is Miami’s priority.
For Johnson, there would be position overlap with Griffin, but not Hayward.
Would Johnson’s hope be that this process ends with him re-signing with the Heat?
“Of course, of course,” he said. “I've never experienced family this close, this fast, an organization like this that really brings out the best in me and allows me to bring out the best in my players and my teammates and that's all you can ask for.”
Johnson, 30, averaged 12.8 points, 4.9 rebounds, 3.6 assists and 1.1 blocks per game during a breakout season for the Heat, shot 47.9 percent from field and made a career-high 87 three-pointers on 256 attempts (34.0 percent).
Johnson also held players he guarded to 40.3 percent shooting, which ranked fourth-best from a defensive perspective among players who defended at least 500 shots, behind only Patrick Patterson, Jrue Holiday and Draymond Green.
Johnson was fifth in NBA Sixth Man of the Year voting and sixth in Most Improved Player balloting.
He said the fact he didn’t finish in the top three in either award, or receive any votes for the All-Defense teams, did not bother him. He said his only disappointment was that Rodney Gruder and Hassan Whiteside weren’t named first or second-team All-Rookie or All-Defense, respectively.
Johnson earned $4 million last season, the most he has ever made in an eight-year career. He should be able to easily surpass that next season.
If Hayward signs with the Heat – and if Johnson were to accept a four-year, $42 million deal that would be possible if McRoberts is cut and stretched – the Heat could have a starting lineup of Hayward, Johnson, Hassan Whiteside, Goran Dragic and Josh Richardson, with Tyler Johnson and Justise Winslow among those coming off the bench. Miami also would have a $4.3 million exception to add a guard or backup center.
Here’s my post from Friday on the Heat’s pursuit of Hayward. (His visit in Miami on Saturday is scheduled to start with a breakfast with Heat officials.)
And here’s a look at available free agents beginning at 12:01 a.m. Saturday.