According to multiple reports, Johnson has agreed to sign with the Heat once he clears waivers. The seven-time NBA All-Star was released by the Brooklyn Nets this week and will be free to officially join any of a number of contenders over the weekend. But the Heat appear his strongest preference.
This season has come down to a painful numbers game for the Heat on many levels, and acquiring Johnson represents the latest challenge. Miami has two available roster spots after making trades last week that moved its payroll back under the league’s punitive luxury tax line.
By shedding what essentially were the original salaries for Mario Chalmers and Chris Andersen, the Heat are in position to avoid the dreaded repeater tax status that would drastically hinder their ability moving forward to execute sign-and-trade deals and would also make it far more expensive to sign free agents.
The Heat’s front office basically celebrated the moves to gain financial flexibility during a season-ticket promotion this week which team president Pat Riley and general manager Andy Elisburg conducted with the team’s in-house marketing and media wings. Although there are complicated alternatives within the league’s rules, signing Johnson prior to March 10 -- or adding any player who shakes free after being bought from their current teams by March 1 -- would throw the Heat back above the luxury tax line.
For that reason, Riley acknowledged being in a bit of a dilemma when he met with reporters late Thursday before a Heat fundraising gala at AmericanAirlines Arena. By waiting several days as part of a loophole to maintain future flexibility, the Heat would miss out on adding a player such as Johnson. By adding help now in a player such as Johnson, it would provide a major boost to an injury-ravaged roster that is fighting to remain in position for one of the top four playoff spots in the Eastern Conference.
The Heat still aren’t certain if leading scorer Chris Bosh will return this season as he continues to seek treatment options for an undisclosed medical condition that has sidelined him since Feb. 9. Earlier this season, reserve guard Tyler Johnson had shoulder surgery, and Miami announced Friday that backup point guard Beno Udrih had successful season-ending foot surgery. Technically, the Heat had 10 players on the plane to Boston after forward Udonis Haslem joined the team at the airport after missing Friday’s practice with an illness that leaves him questionable for Saturday’s game.
"We’re just going to have to wait and see," Riley said of adding help to the roster sooner rather than a bit later. "We have our limitations, financially -- how much, and there’s a certain date. Obviously, being down another point guard, we might have to rethink that. But that’s not a priority."
Despite the injuries and absences, the Heat emerged from the All-Star break having won three of four games heading into the weekend’s two-game trip to play the Celtics on Saturday and the Knicks on Sunday. A relatively favorable stretch in the schedule then has Miami (32-25) next week facing Chicago, Phoenix, consecutive games against Philadelphia, Milwaukee and Chicago again.
"We’re not at that point right now, but we want to put ourselves in a position to be playing good basketball and to make the playoffs," said Heat guard Dwyane Wade, who is coming off scoring a season-high 32 points in Wednesday’s loss to Golden State. "I’m sure as we get down to it, I’m sure coach is going to start talking about different positions and different games. We know the importance of certain games. We knew the importance of (winning Monday’s) Indiana game. We know what that means, making sure they didn’t beat us 3-1 in a series ... we’re just trying to get better as we go."
Adding a player of Joe Johnson's caliber, even as his production has dipped drastically this season, could go a long way for the Heat. One thing is for certain: the pursuit of Johnson will pit longtime friends and former teammates in Wade and LeBron James against one another. Wade has admitted he would actively recruit Johnson if he ever was available. The first-place Cavaliers are also among the contenders chasing Johnson, who since Jan. 1 has averaged 13.4 points, 4.4 assists and 3.7 rebounds while shooting 46 percent from 3-point range.
"I think right now, we have to wait and discuss that," Riley reiterated of the Heat’s approach to the buyout market. "The players have to clear waivers. When they clear waivers, we’ll have our priority list."