MIAMI — To the unfocused eye, Joe Johnson looked like the typical NBA buyout recipient. He was years removed from his last All-Star appearance, seemingly more attractive for his name than his actual numbers.
But to the injury-riddled, shooting-deprived Miami Heat, Johnson was perfect. He could simultaneously address their need for spacing, creativity and crunch-time scoring. And, as a 15-year veteran, he could acclimate himself on the fly to a Miami team furiously fighting for playoff positioning.
Two games into their midseason marriage, they're already envisioning a shared future.
Maybe that's how everyone feels during the honeymoon phase. Or perhaps it's because they fit like pieces from the same puzzle. The Heat are 2-0 since Johnson's arrival and averaging more than 16 extra points than they did without him (113.5 per game, up from 96.9). The 6'7" swingman, meanwhile, has settled in like a long-lost relative who finally found home.
"Everything's been pretty easy," Johnson said. "The guys have been great. My family loves it here. I just want to continue to have fun on and off the court."
The Heat have to keep these positive vibes flowing. If they have any shot at doing something special this season, they'll need to consistently draw the best out of their only external reinforcement.
Space for Miami's Newfound Pace
With Chris Bosh battling blood clots for the second consecutive season, Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra has scrambled to build a functional—but strange—high-speed attack.
It looks like a standard four-out system with guards, wings and small-ball 4s surrounding one traditional big, either Amar'e Stoudemire or Hassan Whiteside. Any of the four perimeter players can initiate the offense, provided he doesn't walk the ball up the court.
The approach isn't unique to Miami by any stretch, but it's had an unfortunate twist: zero outside shooting. Despite playing at the 11th-fastest pace since the All-Star break, the Heat have managed a league-worst 3.7 triples over that stretch. Attacking guards like Goran Dragic almost ran out of necessity, because a set defense meant a packed paint.
Johnson, a career 37.1 percent three-point marksman, is already clearing some of that congestion.
"When he is on the floor, nobody wants to help from him or they are really scared to," Dragic said. "That opens a lot of opportunities for driving and making a play. He's such a great player. He can do everything. He can shoot threes. He can pick-and-roll. You can put him on the post."
Johnson demands defensive attention in a way that may eventually be true of Heat freshmen Justise Winslow and Josh Richardson, (but isn't right now). It's also clearly not the case for Gerald Green, who hasn't played in Miami's last two games nor scored in its last five.
But teams have to track Johnson, on and off the ball, exposing them to the Heat's expert cutters.
"Guys that are veteran savvy, high-IQ players, they know how to make it work," Spoelstra said of Johnson. "They tend to make the game look a little bit easier than it actually is."
Case in point, check Miami's museum-quality work during Tuesday's 129-111 thrashing of the visiting Chicago Bulls. The Heat set this season's high mark and a franchise record with a scalding 67.5 field-goal percentage, a rate that hasn't been cleared since 1998.
Johnson needed just 13 shots to tally 24 points, hitting 2 of 3 from distance, grabbing five rebounds and tossing out four assists. He had the second-highest plus-minus at plus-24 over 33 minutes.
That's an extreme example of his impact—Chicago's depleted defense is a disaster—but it's hard not to like what he can do for the Heat.
Or what they can do for him.
"A Chance to Flourish"
After three-plus seasons with the Brooklyn Nets, Johnson needed a change.
Simply re-entering the playoff race was a clear motivation. That he could do so in sunny South Florida, where he previously owned a home, was an added bonus.
The key selling point, though, wasn't one people would necessarily diagnose as a positive. Miami's emphasis on tempo seemed a curious fit for someone nicknamed Iso Joe, as the franchise had been working to move away from any stopping and/or pounding of the ball.
But Johnson, whose scoring average has fallen each of the previous three seasons, was just as eager to hit the throttle.
"In Brooklyn, we walked it up, played off our bigs. Here, as soon as you get the rebound, you push it," he said. "I love it, because it gives everybody a chance to flourish."
He knows firsthand how helpful these systems can be.
He was discarded by the Boston Celtics midway through his rookie year after being the 10th overall pick in 2001. He didn't average 10 points nor 30 minutes during either of his first two seasons. But his destiny changed when Mike D'Antoni took over the Phoenix Suns in 2003 and unleashed Johnson's many offensive gifts in his trademark track-meet style.
That potential and production helped Johnson score two colossal contracts from the Atlanta Hawks: $70 million in 2005, $124 million in 2010. He couldn't quite cut it as an elite alpha leader, but he was selected to seven All-Star Games and served as one of the best players on some good teams.
But his latest role might be the best-fitting one yet. With more versatility than his moniker suggests, he can function as an overqualified glue guy. He can lead as a primary scorer or playmaker, or he can support as a catch-and-shoot sniper and bail-out post scorer.
"The offense is not complicated; it fits a player like Joe," Dwyane Wade said. "When he is on the ball he knows what to do, and when he is off the ball he knows what to do."
The Heat will need him to do both.
Both Wade and Dragic will always need their touches, and lately, Whiteside (six straight double-doubles) and Luol Deng (averaging a double-double since the All-Star break) are demanding their own. When the offense is rolling around him, Johnson must be a willing complementary piece.
But there are times he'll have to carry the torch. The former All-Star can still be qualified for the job—after a quiet start to the season, he has since pieced together a few high-volume, high-efficiency months.
Johnson's numbers should keep rising now that he's finally back in an offensive system suited to his skills. But he'll need to get his legs under him first.
"I loved [playing with pace before], and now, in my 15th season, I still love it," he said. "Hopefully we can keep the pace up. I've just got to get in better shape."
Two games into his tenure, he's fitting in precisely as the Heat planned. This sizzling start has the look of sustainability to it.