Kelly Olynyk was in the middle of answering a question about the difference between starting and coming off the bench with the Heat following Monday night’s win over the Charlotte Hornets when James Johnson’s voice took control of Miami’s locker room.
“He’s a great start,” James Johnson yelled supportively as he walked towards the Heat’s training room.
Johnson, 30, signed a four-year, $60 million deal this summer to stay in Miami after enjoying a breakout season with the Heat last season. Most would imagine after starting the final five games of the regular season and signing that big contract Johnson would want to be in Miami’s starting lineup at power forward and put his days coming off the bench behind him.
Clearly, he doesn’t necessarily see it that way.
“I’m rooting [for the team] to win, man,” Johnson responded when The Miami Herald asked him if he was secretly rooting for Olynyk, who signed a four-year, $50 million deal with the Heat this summer, to start alongside Hassan Whiteside in the Heat’s frontcourt. “Whatever it takes to win.”
The words are sincere.
Johnson, who played for four other teams before finding a home and the role of his dreams with the Heat last season, has always put team success above his own. It’s why Spoelstra calls him a selfless player and part of the reason why Pat Riley made it a priority this summer to keep Johnson after free agent All-Star Gordon Hayward opted to sign with Boston.
With a rotation that could go 10 or 11 players deep this season, the Heat need players like Johnson, who posted career-highs of 12.8 points, 4.9 rebounds and 3.6 assists last season after several key players were lost to injury, to be willing to share minutes and put egos aside.
Johnson, who became a primary ball-handler off the bench last season and a key to the Heat’s 30-11 second-half finish last season, did that his first two preseason games, deferring to Miami’s starting backcourt of Dion Waiters and Goran Dragic when he was in the starting lineup. Having a bench role like he had last year, Johnson said, ultimately brings him comfort because of familiarity.
He also likes playing alongside Tyler Johnson because of the chemistry the two built together last year in forming one of the NBA’s best bench tandems.
“Our guys our great,” Spoelstra answered when asked if players are being patient this preseason as rotations and lineups are being worked through. “If they're not out there, I don’t want them to be happy and sit on their hands. That’s not the kind of guys we have. We have edgy, competitive guys. They want to be out there making an impact. I get that and I love that.
“We have to do whatever is best for the team. But ultimately if we want to accomplish what we want to accomplish you have to have depth. You have to have a roster that can go 10, 11, 12 deep to sustain everything, to sustain injuries, missed games, foul trouble, versatility against different teams where strengths might be different against one team than another in another [playoff] series.”
Olynyk’s strengths are screen setting, passing and his ability to stretch the floor because of his three-point shooting. Monday, Olynyk showed flashes of it being a good fit with both the starting unit and alongisde Johnson and the Heat’s second unit.
Ultimately, Spoelstra said he feels comfortable when any two-man combination of the three – Whiteside, Olynyk, Johnson – are on the floor together in the Heat’s front court. In fact, he said some the Heat’s best passing of the preseason occured when Olynyk and Johnson were on the floor together in the second quarter Monday.
“I think me and Kelly are getting better playing together,” Whiteside said. “I’m talking to him and he’s talking to me, and we’re just seeing what we see on the court.”
For what it’s worth, Whiteside said Monday he doesn’t notice much of a difference between Olynyk and Johnson and how it affects his own game.
“[Kelly] can shoot. So the space is going to be there,” Whiteside said. “He likes being out there around the three-point line a lot more. That’s why coach plays him.
“I get more lobs from JJ than Kelly. JJ dribbles more. But Kelly is a different kind of passer. JJ can cross somebody over and get to the basket. Kelly will pass the ball and get a back door. It’s just the way they do it.”
In his 152 career starts with the Heat, Whiteside has had seven different power forwards start next to him.
Johnson started the final five games alongside him last season and the Heat went 4-1. Asked Monday if Olynyk reminds him of Josh McRoberts, who started 14 games next to Whiteside, the Heat’s starting center said Olynyk was “more like Chris Bosh” because he’s more adept at scoring than McRoberts.
Ultimately, Whiteside said, he has no preference who starts next to him.
“I don’t care man,” Whiteside said. “All these guys are great. It don’t matter to me. I’m not looking at it like: ‘Man, this guy is starting?’ These guys, they all want to win.”
In his 152 starts for the Heat, center Hassan Whiteside has had seven different power forwards start next to him.
Here’s a look at Whiteside and the Heat’s record with each player:
Luke Babbitt 28-19
Chris Bosh 25-25
Udonis Haslem 10-8
Josh McRoberts 5-9
James Johnson 4-1
Derrick Williams 3-8
Luol Deng 2-5