In another reality, Tyler Johnson would be finishing up the final year of a four year, $50 million deal with the Brooklyn Nets. Solidified as a high level NBA role player, Johnson would be poised to once again cash-in during free agency his second notable contract.
Back in 2016, the gritty combo guard that once made his name in Miami was poised for a breakout, ready for a change, believing in the vision the Nets sold him on.
Nearly four years ago when Johnson inked a big money deal with the Nets, he could hardly contain his emotions. When he first saw the $50 million offer sheet from the Nets, Johnson told CBS Sports’ James Herbert that he actually “threw up a couple of times” in disbelief.
Johnson had a break out of sorts in Miami leading up to that summer’s free agency, but not even his most passionate supporters could’ve imagined a $50 million contract coming his way. Sean Marks’ offer was seen league-wide as an overpayment, but one that was necessary to try and poach a restricted free agent from Pat Riley and the Heat.
The money was big and symbolized the belief that Brooklyn had in Johnson to be a core piece in their rebuild. It was also a way, along with the $75 million offer sheet to Allen Crabbe, to impress NBA agents, let them know Nets were still serious about spending money.
As Johnson told our Anthony Puccio back in 2017:
“Man it was a great feeling... You can tell by the conversations we were having that they were very interested in the sense of making me a focal point of this franchise, so I was definitely humbled by the belief they had in me. I was ready to go over there (Brooklyn).
Johnson emphasized: “I was ready for Brooklyn.”
But things didn’t break the way Johnson had hoped or expected. Just days after signing the deal with the Nets, Miami surprisingly matched Brooklyn’s contract. (Four days later, the Nets agreed to sign another 24-year-old sharpshooter, Joe Harris, to a vets minimum deal.)
“I was in shock,” Johnson said of the days between negotiating the offer sheet and match. “I even lost a little bit of weight, because just the anxiety of going through that whole process and not knowing where I was going to be.”
Riley recalled his conversations with Heat owner Mickey Arison leading up to their decision to match:
In reference to the Nets, “Micky said, ‘You’re not poaching any of my guys,’ “ Riley related, “And Micky made the decision. He loves Tyler. He’s a young piece and part of our future. So we’ll deal with years three and four, but years one and two we got him at a bargain.”
Miami did just that — rostering Johnson at a bargain for years one and two and then offloading him to Phoenix for the final year and a half of his poison pill contract which ballooned to nearly $20 million annually in years three and four. He left Miami in a double salary dump that sent Ryan Anderson to Miami ... and reduced the Heat’s luxury tax exposure.
Johnson remained productive while a member of the Heat — as recently as two years ago he was a productive NBA player. In the first two years with Miami, he averaged 12.7 points and shot 37 percent from beyond the arc, playing in 145 games, mostly as a reserve. He isn’t just a 3-point shooter. He plays defense and has more than a little athleticism...
It wasn’t until he got to Phoenix — a perpetual loser — that his career began to derail.
Johnson’s Suns tenure has also been marred by injuries — most notably undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery which cut his 2018-2019 season short.
In the limited games he played, Johnson wasn’t productive for Phoenix, either, posting 38/30/82 splits to go along with an average of just 7.3 points per game across 44 games.
Digest all of that, but understand there should be optimism about the Nets signing of Johnson. He was productive during his Heat tenure, then was traded to Phoenix, ran into a few injuries, and only played 44 games —660 minutes—across a season and a half. That’s roughly half the games of a typical NBA season.
Johnson has a greater sample size of productivity — as recently as two years ago — than his most recent 44 game sample of injury-riddled poor play.
For Brooklyn, the move is a no-brainer. This is the definition of a ‘low risk, high reward’ type of move. The Nets get to take a chance on a player they once previously valued highly ($50 million) without having to give up anything of real value. Theo Pinson was great for the locker room, but it was widely known that he wouldn’t be back with the team next season. It was a dead roster spot that the Nets now will get to use on someone with real bounce back capability and upside.
Johnson can carve out a role with the Nets as a tough, gritty, energy providing two-way guard capable of playing both backcourt positions. He has the potential to be a valuable piece. The high end of Johnson is probably a versatile third guard off the bench and that’s what makes this signing so intriguing.
It’s completely possible that Johnson’s recent injuries have zapped his basketball ability, but signing Johnson now gives him time with the Nets performance team and staff to both rebuild his body and confidence — to get him back to playing the game they once believed in so much.
It remains to be seen how much time if any that Johnson gets with the Nets in Orlando, but at the very least, the Nets now have a fascinating summer project on their hands.