James Johnson gave the Miami Heat his body and soul last season, and Pat Riley rewarded him Thursday with a four-year, $60 million contract.
To outsiders, it may not make a lot of sense to give Johnson, who turns 31 on Feb. 20, that much money.
After all, before he came here last season, Johnson (6-8, 250) was a journeyman who had played for four different teams and made $13 million combined his first six years in the league. Most of his peers knew Johnson more for his history in MMA fighting and for being a second-degree blackbelt than anything he accomplished on the court.
But in the end, this all makes sense to Riley, who saw Johnson fully commit to transforming his body and then become somebody nobody else expected, the backbone of the Heat’s 30-11 second-half turnaround last season.
And the thing is Riley sees so much more in Johnson’s future.
“In order to get the best out of yourself, you have to get to [world-class shape] first and then let the coaches take care of the development part and let the head coach take care of how he sees you as a world class athlete developing your skills,” Riley said of James Johnson at the end of the season.
“What James Johnson showed us was he was another playmaker, a guy that could do a lot more than anybody ever thought he could do. And he can get better. My conversation with him [at season’s end was] that ‘There’s another level for you efficiency-wise at the end of a game. If somebody is going to put the ball in your hands at the end of the game and they want you to be that player then there’s another level.’ And he knows exactly what I’m talking about.”
Johnson, who never showed any of the ball-handling or playmaking skills he did last season with the Heat when he was with Chicago, Toronto, Sacramento or Memphis, credits all his success to the Heat’s training staff. When he arrived in Miami, he was a pudgy 274 pounds with 14.5 percent body fat. By season’s end, he was a sculpted 235 pounds with only 6.5 percent body fat.
With better health, Johnson missed just six games last season because of injury (four with a strained right rotator cuff, one with a bruised elbow and one because of food poisoning).
His numbers, meanwhile, were equally impressive, the best he’s ever put up in a single-season in multiple categories.
He displayed range with his shooting, making 87 three-pointers (only 10 fewer than the 97 he combined to make his first seven years in the league) and shot 34 percent for the season from beyond the arc. He also wowed us with his dunks (including one I’ll never forget that left Steph Curry on his back in Oakland).
Johnson’s collective averages in points (12.8), rebounds (4.9) and assists (3.6) were matched or exceeded by only 16 other players in the league and most of those were All-Stars.
That list included: James Harden, Jimmy Butler, Russell Westbrook, LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kevin Durant, Chris Paul, Damian Lillard, Nikola Jokic, DeMar DeRozan, Marc Gasol, Blake Griffin, DeMarcus Cousins, Paul Millsap, Al Horford and Nicolas Batum.
Johnson was also one of the leagues best defenders. He held the players he guarded to 40.3 percent shooting, which ranked fourth-best among players who defended at least 500 shots, behind only Patrick Patterson, Jrue Holiday and Draymond Green. He ranked second in isolation defense.
Johnson had a strong argument to be voted the league’s most improved player, but finished sixth in the voting behind the winner Antetokounmpo, Jokic, Utah’s Rudy Gobert, Washington’s Otto Porter Jr. and Boston’s Isaiah Thomas. He also finished fifth in the Sixth Man of the Year voting.
“He made the biggest commitment, and it was to himself to really push himself to be something different, to commit to the work, to his profession, being the best version he could possibly be of himself, and he was very open to our culture and us helping him get to somewhere different,” coach Erik Spoelstra said of Johnson back in April.
“He’s been awesome. I love JJ. I love his competitive spirit that he brings every single day. JJ is just one of those guys you want to be around. I’m sure he always was the guy that can get along with anybody at school – the jocks, the nerds and everybody in between. He just makes you feel better about yourself. That’s why he’s had such an impact, not just on the game.”
The Heat front office made it known early it wanted to prioritize Johnson and Dion Waiters in free agency. After Miami was eliminated from playoff contention on the final day of the regular season in April, Heat owner Micky Arison called the team “one of my favorites.”
A week later, on the eve of Easter Sunday, Arison posted a photo on his Instagram account of himself standing alongside Johnson and Waiters – all three were wearing bunny ears – and a caption which read: “The @miamiheat future looks very bright.”
“I’m home,” Johnson said a couple days after the Heat finished 41-41 and missed the playoffs on a tiebreaker. “That’s what it feels like. I love it here. I had a great season. I love the culture here and I’m very passionate about this place.”
Johnson clearly bought into the Heat culture himself saying at the end of the season the opportunities Miami gave him to expand his game and play a style he hadn’t been allowed to with his four previous teams meant a lot to him. He even hinted he would be willing to take less money.
He told the Miami Herald on the eve of the start of free agency last Friday he was even willing to wait for the team to finish courting Gordon Hayward before worrying about his own future.
Then, when the Heat made its recruiting pitch to Hayward and his wife, Robyn, last Saturday, Johnson was one of five players to meet with Hayward inside AmericanAirlines Arena, despite the fact he didn’t have a contract with the Heat and was under no obligation to be there.
“I love this place so much and the opportunity they gave me, I couldn’t thank them enough,” Johnson told WSVN Channel 7 last month. “Down the line, it’s hard in this phase of my career to try to find somewhere that you call home or want it to be home. So, you know, the love I have for this team is up there. But it’s just something I got to let my agent and [team president] Pat [Riley] discuss and try to figure out, and then just give my last say so at the end.”
Thursday night, Riley made sure Johnson got his money.
Now, Johnson has to make him look smart for doing it.