The NBA trade deadline, Heat guard Tyler Johnson admits, has always made him “kind of” nervous.
“I think my first couple years I was always on edge,” Johnson said Tuesday after practice.
This year’s deadline – Thursday at 3 p.m. – was one he always thought “might present a problem down the road” after he signed a four-year, $50 million offer sheet with the Brooklyn Nets two summers ago – and the Heat matched to keep him.
The way Johnson’s deal was structured by the Nets – to try and make the Heat avoid matching it – paid Johnson $5.8 million this season before jumping to $19.2 million each of the next two seasons. So, naturally, there’s always been a fear this would be the time the Heat looked to move him off the books.
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“I think early on I thought like that, but now I feel like I’m a part of this team,” Johnson said. “If something happens I would have to be professional about it. But I don’t forsee it happening right now. I also think we know what we’re building here. I feel like there’s a little bit of security in that.”
Johnson, 25, has not had the type of season he was hoping for. He’s averaging fewer points (11.6), rebounds (3.5), assists (2.2) than a season ago and his shooting percentages from the field (41.9 percent) and three-point range (35.3 percent) are also down.
His defensive metrics have also slipped with opponents shooting 2.5 percent better when he’s guarding him rather than someone else. Last year, Johnson was holding the players he guarded slightly below average.
With Dion Waiters ruled out for the season after badly spraining his left ankle on Dec. 22, the opportunity was there for Johnson to spend more time in the Heat’s starting lineup and to thrive. But since scoring a season-high 31 points in a Dec. 30 win at Orlando, Johnson has struggled to consistently find the basket.
The fact he sprained his ankle Jan. 15 at Chicago and missed five games afterward didn’t help. In the six games Johnson has played in since returning, he’s averaged only 8.5 points while shooting 34.6 percent from the field. But Monday, he said, he finally started to feel more like himself because he was able to start driving to the basket again with more confidence in his ankle.
“I definitely have gotten healthier as time has gone on,” Johnson said. “There’s not a lot of pain in it [anymore]. The problem was it was a little bit weak. It’s my own fault. It’s not that I wasn’t rehabbing it enough. But I was more focused on getting the pain out as opposed to really strengthening it.
“I’m not a one dimensional player. I think it was a problem in the last couple of games. [Monday] I actually felt like I was getting into a rhythm getting to the basket. If you really look back, I wasn’t getting to the basket at all. I was just shooting. I’ve been trying to shoot myself out of a slump. So, all of it is an adjustment on my part to get back to what I was doing. I was in a good rhythm there before I got injured. After that, I think it was partially being a little bit nervous to push off on it. I’ve at least identified where the problem lies.”
Spoelstra believes once Johnson starts having success defending the players he’s guarding it will trickle over to his offense.
“It looks like he was in a little bit better rhythm [Monday night] but certainly we can have him in a better place and part of that is my job, part of that is the team trying to get him to his strengths and part of that is Tyler taking more responsibility to find the right times to be aggressive and to read the game,” Spoesltra said.
“Usually with Tyler, competition is what takes him to a different level. When he’s really competing and is around the ball defensively things tend to change for him in a positive way on the offensive end. I’d like to see him flying around making a bunch of winning defensive plays and see what happens from there.”