Sometimes, when your team is winning, you pay players big money off last impressions, even if the career body of work is uneven.
Off a 9-3 close to last season (including a playoff loss) and as acknowledgement for their good work during that run, the Dolphins rewarded Kiko Alonso and Andre Branch contracts worth a combined $53 million.
Off a 30-11 close to last season and as an acknowledgment for their good work during that run, the Heat gave James Johnson and Dion Waiters a combined $112 million.
Fast forward and this much is clear: None of those four has consistently produced at the level witnessed during those second-half of the season joyrides, though the situation with Johnson is more nuanced.
We don’t include Dolphins Kenny Stills and Reshad Jones – both given lucrative new contracts last March – because their strong career bodies of work made those deals no-brainers.
None of these Dolphins/Heat deals seemed outrageous at the time. And for the Heat, in particular, the options were limited beyond Johnson and Waiters.
After Gordon Hayward chose Boston over the Heat on July 4, these were the remaining top free agent options: Patrick Patterson, Ersan Ilyasova, Marreesse Speights, Zaza Pachulia, Rudy Gay, Tyreke Evans, Arron Afflalo, Nick Young, Derrick Rose, Jeff Green, Tony Allen, Thabo Sefolosha and Omri Casspi.
Of that group, none of the power rotation players necessarily has been better than Johnson this season and of the wings, only Gay and Evans have been better than Waiters.
But the Heat never considered Evans because of a history of knee injuries. A bargain at $2.3 million, he has had a career renaissance in Memphis, averaging 17.9 points on 48.5 percent shooting.
And the Heat chose Kelly Olynyk over Gay, meaning Johnson and Waiters weren’t part of that decision.
So the Heat shouldn’t be criticized for signing Waiters and Johnson over someone else, based on who was available.
But the size of those four-year deals - $52 million for Waiters, $60 million for Johnson – could be something they regret, if the inconsistent nature of their seasons continue.
Though Johnson’s numbers are comparable to last year – his scoring is down a bit (12.8 to 11.1 in 27 minutes per game) and turnovers are up - he isn’t having the same impact.
The Heat has been outscored by 31 with Johnson on the floor. Last season, Miami outscored teams by 139 with Johnson on the court, 68th best in the league. In Johnson’s defense, part of his poor plus/minus is the byproduct of Tyler Johson’s struggles.
With the size of James Johnson’s contract, the expectation was high-impact games on most nights and a player who would thrive as a starter. The Heat gave him five starts this season before determining it’s better served with Johnson coming off the bench.
Waiters, during 25 magical games from mid-January on, averaged 18.4 points, 4.8 assists and shot 49.3 percent, and the Heat gave him a big deal with the thought that he could duplicate that. He hasn’t.
His career-low 39 percent accuracy from the field is 28th among 30 starting shooting guards, ahead of only Dallas’ Wes Matthews and Chicago’s Justin Holiday. His 31.1 percent three-shooting (down from 39.5 last season) is next to last among shooting guards, ahead of only the Nets’ Caris LeVert.
His turnovers are up to a career-high 2.7 per game and his assist average down (4.3 to 3.7). The Heat has been outscored by 65 points with Waiters on the court; he was a plus 84 last season.
And this is what’s most puzzling: He’s shooting an excellent 60.7 percent (17-for-28) in the clutch, defined by the NBA as the final five minutes of games with a margin of five points or fewer, compared with 36.9 percent the rest of the time.
He’s shooting 58.3 percent on clutch threes (7 for 12), 28.4 percent on all other threes (35 for 123).
“He has to be more efficient,” coach Erik Spoelstra said Tuesday. “He knows that. He has the ball in his hands quite a bit. There has to be more commitment to get him open and get him into the paint and he has to be more committed to making the right plays and not just settling for low percentage pull ups, particularly when they're contested and particularly when there's more time on the clock to explore more options of our offense.”
On the Dolphins’ signings, Alonso’s regression has been mystifying because he says he’s healthy and he was very good last season.
According to Pro Football Focus, he ranks 75th of 87 linebackers and entered December allowing more passing yards in coverage than any other linebacker in the league. Needing to cover for out-of-position teammates has been one factor hampering him.
The Dolphins could have kept Alonso on a one-year deal as a restricted free agent this season, then made a decision on him next spring. But they understandably believed at the time that he would be a longterm piece and gave him a four-year, $29 million contract.
It’s worth nothing that Zach Brown, who the Dolphins passed on signing despite hosting on a visit, has been productive for Washington, with 117 tackles (compared with 87 for Alonso), 2.5 sacks and a PFF ranking of 50th – all on a bargain one-year deal for $2.3 million.
But if the Dolphins had signed Brown, it would have been in addition to Alonso and Lawrence Timmons (two years, $12 million) – not instead of either. Problem was, there was bad blood between Brown and Alonso and Miami didn’t want to pay Brown the $5 million or $6 million he was initially seeking.
Branch hasn’t made the same impact as he provided during that impressive run last season, and he’s had much fewer tackles (20 compared with 49 last season) and fewer sacks (four, compared with six). He’s 107th among defensive linemen in tackles and tied with 14 others for 59th in sacks.
“We haven’t played with energy and I am a part of it because people look at me as an energy guy and I didn't do it [against Carolina],” Branch said last month. “I have to turn it back up.”
What about the low tackle number? “I don't look at tackles. I look at did I do my job the best way I could? I see some players who rush passer even on the run down. I don't do that because we could get gashed. We are here to stop the run and get the quarterback down.”
If the Dolphins could do this over last March, the better move, in hindsight, would have been signing one of two defensive ends with South Florida roots – ex-Cane Calais Campbell, who has rewarded Jacksonville for its four-year, $60 million deal with a monster year (12.5 sacks, three forced fumbles) or Jabaal Sheard, who visited the Dolphins in March one day after Branch signed but left without a contract, signed with the Colts and has played very well (39 tackles, 4.5 sacks) and is rated 10th among 115 defensive ends by PFF compared with 87th for Branch.
Keep this in mind: Branch and Alonso have higher cap hits for 2018 if they’re cut than if they’re on the team, so the Dolphins must hope both get back to 2016 levels.
And for the Heat, Miami must hope for January through April 2017 versions of Johnson or Waiters because neither of their contracts – even in this era of inflated salaries – would have teams eager to trade for those deals.
All four were rewarded for splendid play during winning. Whether all four will validate those deals remains very much in question.
Here’s my six-pack of Dolphins notes from Tuesday, including interesting Kenyan Drake/Jay Ajayi comparisons, an Eli Manning/Dolphins report and more.
Here’s my UM post from Tuesday, including news on a QB UM is pursuing and Canes reaching out to the NFL draft advisory board.