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Tyler Johnson was more than just a contract

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Johnson was a small bright spot in the immediate post-LeBron era: providing a sliver of youth-fullness and excitement for a vulnerable fanbase and rickety roster.

NBA: Miami Heat at Brooklyn Nets Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

On Monday night Tyler Johnson will suit up to play at the AmericanAirlines Arena, just as he has routinely done over the past four years. This time, however, he’ll be donning a jersey of the Phoenix Suns—the team that acquired him in a trade deadline deal to help the Miami Heat lower their luxury tax burden.

That the Heat acted to reduce their salary bill is of little surprise. They sat $6.3 million dollars over the luxury tax threshold (which amounted to a $9.5 million charge when factoring in the tax multiplier effect outlined in the NBA’s CBA).

What is surprising, is that it was Johnson who became the first casualty of Miami’s bloated salary cap sheet.

Mentioned ad nauseum by fans and analysts, Tyler Johnson’s rich contract became a symbol of a 2016 free agency spending spree gone awry. A significant rise in the salary cap sparked by an influx of TV money, coupled with a high demand for multi-positional wings— the most sought after position during the NBA’s trend towards small-ball—saw relatively unknown players like Johnson ink 4-year, $50 million dollar deals.

The timeline of his signing unfolded something like this: Miami matched a restricted free agency offer-sheet put forth by the Brooklyn Nets. Due to a “poison pill” provision in the CBA, the deal was to be structured by backloading 40 of the $50 million dollars into the final two years. Interestingly, Miami asked Johnson for permission to smoothen the deal to a more palatable $12.5 million annual cap hit. He refused, perhaps recognizing how a complex contract structure might prolong his time in Miami (by making a future trade less likely).

It should be made clear: Johnson did what any athlete should do—take the money offered to them. Sports careers can be fleeting, especially for undrafted and overlooked players like himself.

Unfortunately for him, the contract came to enshroud what was an improbable rise and an ultimately solid Heat tenure.

A now seemingly distant memory, Johnson was a small bright spot for Miami in the aftermath of LeBron James’ departure: providing a sliver of youth-fullness and excitement for a vulnerable fanbase and rickety roster.

The immediate post-Big 3 era was an uncertain, if not odd time. Dwyane Wade’s health in the waning months of the Big 3 era left room for concern. Pat Riley was, somewhat un-ironically, referring to Luol Deng as “one of the most important signings in Heat history.” Signings like Danny Granger and Josh McRoberts showed little early return on investment.

Johnson, then a player for Miami’s D-League affiliate Sioux Falls Skyforce, was busy getting caught up in the routines so familiar to developmental players: call-ups, recalls, 10-day contracts and bouts of career uncertainty. In his third game for the Heat, however, Johnson noticeably stood out on the court. Finishing the game with 13 points, 9 rebounds, 4 assists, 2 blocks and 2 steals, he threw himself around with a sort of reckless abandon that fans would come to appreciate. He blocked a shot at the buzzer, hounded opposing guards on defense, flashed a give-and-go game, and drove to the rim with fearless determination.

Just days later he dropped 18 points in a game against the San Antonio Spurs, a performance that impressed the Heat enough to sign him to a two-year guaranteed deal. He would go on to score 11 or more points seven times in the remaining three months of the season, including outings of 24 and 26 points.

In the years that followed, Johnson’s maximum effort playing style was often summed up by a running joke about his propensity for losing teeth on the court.

His two-man chemistry with James Johnson, best conveyed by one finding the other on a timely backdoor cut, earned the duo a moniker of “the Brothers Johnson”— a tribute to the famous funk and R&B group of the 1970’s and 80’s.

What’s often lost is that Tyler Johnson (perhaps along with Hassan Whiteside) was key in shaping the Heat’s reputation as a miner of hidden talent and ultimately the foundation for one of Miami’s most recent marketing campaigns— #HeatCulture.

Johnson was the quintessential NBA underdog story—an undrafted, undersized guard from Fresno State (not exactly a blue-blood college basketball program). His strong work ethic and commitment to improvement were the same sentiments later echoed during Miami’s 30-11 turnaround, a run that saw cast-offs Dion Waiters and James Johnson post career years.

While his contract came to signify Miami’s current predicament, a roster full of handsomely paid, yet non-franchise altering players, Tyler Johnson should be remembered for more than a contract. For an organization that loves selling basketball proverbials like “buying in,” perhaps no player in recent years bought in more. And no one played harder.

Here’s to Bumpy Johnson.