As this Heat season teeters on the brink of unraveling, here’s one question the franchise hoped it would never be asking: Will James Johnson and Dion Waiters ever again resemble the players who were rewarded with big contracts after tantalizing team officials during that 30-11 run two years ago?
At the moment, they’re not close, though definitive judgment must be withheld because both are coming off major surgeries.
Johnson, age 31 and in the second year of a four-year, $60 million contract, has gone from averaging 12.8 points, 4.9 rebounds and 3.6 assists two seasons ago to 7.6 points, 3.1 rebounds and 2.3 assists.
His minutes are down, from 27.4 that season to 20.8 this season. His field goal percentage has plunged from 47.9 and 50.3 his first two seasons with the Heat to 41.7.
Following Saturday’s 95-88 loss to Indiana – a third consecutive home defeat that pushed Miami to 11-16 at home and 24-27 overall – coach Erik Spoelstra was asked whatever happened to the James Johnson who routinely filled the box score during that glorious Heat second-half run two years ago.
“He has had some really good games too,” Spoelstra responded. “It’s not any individual right now. We are looking for collective consistency right now. You can point to a lot of different areas we haven’t had the consistency in the past.”
The sports hernia surgery last May appears to have diminished Johnson’s explosiveness, but there’s more to it than that.
On Saturday against Indiana, he failed to score a point, attempt a shot or secure a rebound in the first half of a game for the second time in two weeks. He has made several head-scratching turnovers in recent games, including an alley-oop attempt to Hassan Whiteside that was nowhere close.
Among NBA starting power forwards, his 7.1 rebounds per 48 minutes are last, his 17.5 points per 48 minutes are fourth-worst and his 41.7 shooting percentage is third-worst.
Here’s the good news: Players guarded by Johnson are shooting 41.7 percent, compared to the 46.7 percent those players shoot overall. So Johnson’s defensive acumen – combined with his versatility – continue to keep him in the starting lineup.
Justise Winslow said “we’ve got to do a better job of getting him to his strengths. He’s a great player and when he’s playing well, he takes this ball club to the next level.
“We’ve got to watch the tape, especially myself being the point guard, being the leader of that group. I have to find ways to get him more involved. He’s a dynamic player, versatile, can get to the hole, finish, can find guys, can knock down open jumpers. We definitely need him to help us a little bit more on the offensive end but we also have to help him get to his strengths.”
Johnson has had two or fewer rebounds in five of his last six games and exactly one basket in four of his last six games.
With Waiters, he’s still working off rust after being sidelined a calendar year because of ankle surgery. But he insists that’s not the reason for his uneven play.
Waiters, 27, say he’s out of rhythm largely because his role has changed. He prefers to start, but all of his 13 appearances have come off the bench.
“Right now, my role is different; I’m coming off the bench,” Waiters said, with the Heat given the day off Sunday in advance of a five-game road trip that begins Tuesday in Portland. “I’m trying to adapt to that, trying to figure things out when I come in the game.”
Waiters earned his four-year, $52 million contract with an impressive 25-game stretch between January and March 2017 when he averaged 18.4 points and shot 49.3 percent from the field and 44.8 on three-pointers.
But that appears to be an outlier, from a field goal percentage perspective. In 30 games last season before ankle surgery, Waiters ranked among the bottom shooting guards in the league in shooting percentage (39.8) and three-point shooting (30.6 percent).
This season, he’s shooting 37.8 percent overall (42 for 111) and 27.0 percent (17 for 63) on threes. He’s 1 for 7 on free throws.
“I’m not getting the [shots] I want,” he said. “Sometimes, I can break guys down [but] I get the ball late in the shot clock. For me, my ability, coach believes in that late in the shot clock - go out there and make a play. It’s tough. All my shots lately have been threes.”
This season, 56.7 percent of his shots have come from three-point range, compared with 32.4 percent two seasons ago.
“My game is based off getting the ball, being able to create but getting in the paint and getting the easy ones first,” he said. ”We’ve seen what I am able to do when I get the ball and create. But we have a lot of guys do the same thing on the team. Sometimes I can be in the corner. I’m trying to figure it out and stay sane because I know it’s going to come back around. It’s tough right now, real tough.”
Said Spoelstra: “He just needs to keep working at it. He needs to find ways to help the team.”
Both Johnson and Waiters have contracts that would be difficult to move.
Johnson is earning $14.4 million this season and is due $15.1 million and $15.8 million (a player option) the next two seasons. Waiters is earning $12.7 million and is due $13.3 million and $13.9 million the following two seasons.
Unless the Heat can find a taker, Miami must continue to find a way to make it work with both.