Riley: “Not a new culture, but to tightening the screws on a culture that sometimes erodes just a little bit.”
For every decision, there is a consequence.
Heat president Pat Riley offered background on a decision made two years ago that has carried consequences. During his season-ending news conference on April 13, Riley explained why the Heat decided to sign forward James Johnson and guard Dion Waiters to four-year contracts instead of shorter-term deals in the summer of 2017.
“I want to let you know something that you didn’t know so you’ll have an idea of why,” Riley said during his 45-minute session with the media. “When we were negotiating with Gordon Hayward [in the 2017 offseason], I didn’t know if I was going to get him or not. But on July 1, I didn’t want to be left with nobody.”
Those negotiations came just months after the Heat finished just short of making the playoffs despite a historic 30-11 finish to the 2016-17 season. Waiters and Johnson helped push the Heat to its strong finish.
Waiters averaged 18.4 points on 46.7 percent shooting from the field and 44.5 percent shooting on threes to go with 4.8 assists and a plus-minus of plus-138 in the best 25-game stretch of his NBA career during that 30-11 finish. And Johnson averaged 13.9 points on 46.8 percent shooting, five rebounds, 4.3 assists, 1.2 steals, 1.3 blocks and a plus-minus of plus-215 in 40 games during that same span.
“After five days of Gordon having to make some kind of decision, I didn’t want to lose some players that we had that were having deals out there,” Riley said. “It was an either/or and both of them agreed to an either/or. If we got them, they’d get two-year contracts. If we didn’t get them, they’d get four-year contracts to hold that down.”
Hayward decided to join the Celtics. So Waiters signed a four-year, $52 million contract and Johnson signed a four-year, $60 million contract, and Miami used the rest of its cap space that offseason to sign Kelly Olynyk to a four-year, $50 million deal and guarantee Wayne Ellington’s $6.3 million salary for 2017-18.
“We weren’t thinking of room after we just lost [Kevin] Durant [in 2016 free agency] and Hayward. At that time, we weren’t thinking of 2020,” Riley said. “We were thinking of making sure we had that 30-11 team come back. I thought the contracts that we gave at that time that they were long-term contracts and also contracts that were well worthwhile what those guys were performing at.
“That’s on me. You can put that all over me because I was the one that made the deal at midnight. We didn’t land Hayward. When he left, I didn’t want the other two guys to be on somebody else’s team.”
Of opting to sign Waiters and Johnson to four-year contracts instead of a shorter ones, Riley said: “I wasn’t bidding, but I do know that James had a deal. That’s what I did. It was my decision. I didn’t want to lose all three of them [Hayward, Waiters, Johnson]. That’s ridiculous.”
Since signing those contracts, Waiters and Johnson have experienced setbacks. Waiters underwent left ankle surgery in January 2018 and Johnson underwent surgery for a sports hernia in May 2018.
During the past two seasons since signing their four-year deals, Waiters has averaged 12.9 points on 40.7 percent shooting in just 74 games and Johnson has averaged 9.5 points on 47.6 percent shooting, 4.2 rebounds and 3.2 assists in 128 games.
“At one time Dion would be considered a guy that’s got a midlevel contract,” Riley said. “The same with James Johnson. When you start talking about getting stuck with contracts, then take a look at four, five or six other teams in this league and they’ve got $25 million, $30 million, $35 million contracts. We’re not even close to that.”
But those four-year deals — including the one given to Olynyk — are part of the reason the Heat enters this offseason with 13 players under contract for 2019-20 who are due about $140 million, excluding cap holds.
That includes the four players (Derrick Jones Jr., Yante Maten, Duncan Robinson, Kendrick Nunn) who don’t have their full 2019-20 salaries guaranteed yet. It also includes Goran Dragic and Hassan Whiteside, who both have 2019-20 player options to decide on this offseason. But it doesn’t account for an allocation for the Heat’s first-round draft pick this year.
The $140 million of combined salaries can be lowered by about $6 million by waiving Ryan Anderson by July 10. That still puts the Heat way above the projected $109 million salary cap and just above the projected $132 million luxury tax line.