Even with peaks and valleys in his play, Tyler Johnson was very good value for the Heat at $5.9 million each of the past two seasons.
That’s about to change.
Johnson’s salary boost to $19.2 million each of the next two seasons has created challenges for the Heat, which matched Brooklyn’s back-loaded four-year, $50 million offer sheet two summers ago partly because it was losing Dwyane Wade and partly because Miami saw upside in Johnson.
Now, the Heat has been trying to dump Johnson’s contract for a shorter deal with less money or to a team with cap space to absorb his salary, according to an NBA official in touch with the Heat’s front office. Those attempts so far have been unsuccessful, with Sacramento among very few teams remaining with the cap space to acquire Johnson’s contract without sending substantial money back to Miami.
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A team acquiring Johnson not only must pay the $38.4 million remaining on his deal, but also a $3.2 million trade kicker. The salary, plus the kicker — combined with limited cap space around the league — has left Johnson without much of a trade market this offseason.
The Heat still likes Johnson but wants to thin its roster and create more payroll flexibility, with Miami just $3 million from the $123 million luxury tax threshold.
For perspective, Johnson’s $19.2 million for this upcoming season ranks him 41st on the NBA’s salary list for 2018-19, barely behind Kyrie Irving and Kawhi Leonard and ahead of All-Stars including John Wall, Klay Thompson, Goran Dragic, Draymond Green and Kemba Walker.
And consider this: If Miami hadn’t matched that offer sheet to Johnson, it would be $22 million from the luxury tax threshold, giving it the flexibility this summer to use the full $8.8 million midlevel exception (instead of the $5.3 million taxpayer’s exception), as well as utilize the smaller $3.4 million biannual exception (Miami likely cannot afford to use that) and give Wayne Ellington a raise over last season’s $6.3 million without worrying about incurring a tax.
Also, without Johnson on Miami’s books, the Heat would need to move just one significant contract — instead of two — to carve out substantial cap space next summer, when Leonard, Thompson and Irving headline the free agent class.
But when Miami gave Johnson that deal, the Heat anticipated further growth from a player whose career has exceeded anything realistically expected after he went undrafted out of Fresno State.
And whereas Johnson’s scoring average has risen from 8.7 per game the season before he signed that contract to 13.7 and 11.7 the past two seasons, his shooting percentage has dropped, from 48.6 to 43.4 and 43.5 the past two seasons. His three-point shooting also has leveled off from 38 to 37.2 and 36.7 percent the past two seasons.
The Heat has cast him as a backup point guard at times and his assist-to-turnover ratio improved to 3.2-to-1.2 two seasons ago before slipping to 2.3-to-1.1 last season.
Johnson’s pay spike also creates an interesting conundrum for Miami next season: If the Heat cannot dump Johnson’s deal next summer, the Heat would have the option of cutting and stretching his $19.2 million cap hit over three years (with an annual cap hit of $6.3 million), or perhaps encouraging Johnson to opt out of his $19.2 million salary for 2019-20 in exchange for a longer commitment at smaller salaries.
Either of those scenarios could come into play next summer if Miami is able to deal other contracts and finds itself close to being able to carve substantial cap space to sign an All-Star caliber player.
In the meantime, Johnson will deal with the expectations of becoming a top 50 NBA player in salary.
“It’s not something I feel pressure about,” Johnson said last season.
▪ For those wondering why the Heat cannot cut and stretch several players to carve out cap space, keep in mind that no more than 15 percent of a team’s payroll can be allocated to salary that is being stretched.
The Heat withdrew its qualifying offer for guard Derrick Walton Jr., making him an unrestricted free agent.
The Heat is expected to explore other potential options for its second two-way contract. But Walton’s agent, Mark Bartelstein, said there’s still mutual interest in a return.
Bartelstein said by removing the qualifying offer, it allows Walton fewer restrictions if he finds another team.
The Heat faced a midnight Friday deadline to keep the qualifying offer in place, which would have come with a $50,000 guarantee.
Miami used one of two-way contracts on undrafted Michigan small forward Duncan Robinson and has spoken of potentially holding onto the second one for a while.
“We maybe might keep the second one, because having a slot sometimes helps you,” said Chet Kammerer, the Heat’s vice president/player personnel.
Walton averaged 1.8 points in 16 games for the Heat last season, splitting time between Miami and the Heat’s G League team in South Dakota. He has struggled with his shot in summer league.
Miami Herald sportswriter Manny Navarro contributed to this report.