After Dwyane Wade left the Miami Heat last summer, Pat Riley opted to put together a suicide squad of veteran journeymen in what could most charitably be described as a holding pattern. With no real designs to win, Riley brought in misfits like Dion Waiters, Luke Babbitt, Wayne Ellington, Rodney McGruder, Willie Reed and James Johnson on short-term contracts as the franchise looked toward the future.
All of the aforementioned players can be free agents this summer, but after a rough start to the season, Miami’s gang of mercenaries transformed into one of the best teams in the NBA in January. The spiritual leader of the revival has been Johnson, who dropped 40 pounds in the off-season and has taken his game to new heights. An afterthought in Toronto, Johnson is now the Heat’s Swiss Army Knife, handling the ball and draining open threes on offense and playing spectacular defense on the perimeter.
Johnson played his best game of the season Wednesday in Charlotte. Starting for the first time all year in place of an injured Babbitt, Johnson scored 26 points on 10-of-12 shooting to keep Miami’s playoff hopes alive. (The Heat have been teetering since Waiters went down with a sprained ankle.)
In late March, The Crossover caught up with Johnson to discuss the Heat’s playoff run, his career year and his karate skills.
Rohan Nadkarni: If you had to point to one thing that’s led to this breakout season, what would it be?
James Johnson: I think it’s just the culture. Finding the right system and culture that fits you. It also takes some honesty. Looking in the mirror and being honest with yourself. Honesty from the coaches.
RN: What did you have to be honest with yourself about?
JJ: Lifestyle changes. What’s my real goal in the NBA? Do I want to be middle of the pack or lower than middle of the pack? Or do I want to be the player that I believe I could be. Coach Spo seen it, too. He might have seen it before I did. He challenged me and I accepted it.
RN: Fans and media assumed this team was put together without the expectation to win. What would it mean to go from that, to 11–30 midway through the season, to maybe making the playoffs?
JJ: I don’t think I ever paid attention to that. I’ve always been the kind of guy that’s hard headed or stubborn and doesn’t care what people think. When you get a group of guys like this, it can only go one of two ways. Either everyone goes on their own and tries to solidify themselves and get their stock or value higher. This culture don’t allow that. If people thought it was going to be one of those seasons where a bunch of journeymen came in and the season wasn’t going to be what it has, that’s fine for people to think. The culture here don’t allow that.
They sign Miami Heat guys for a reason. They always say, “You’re a Miami Heat guy, you’re a Miami Heat guy.” I didn’t get welcomed to the Heat until after the conditioning test. They do things different here. When you fall in love with your work and enjoy coming in every day, it just makes things easier.
RN: We always hear about the Miami Heat culture. What’s the secret?
JJ: I mean, like I said I ain’t get told “Welcome to the Miami Heat” until after I ran my conditioning test. It wasn’t after I signed my contract. There are some things that we keep in house and don’t like to share. If Coach Spo and Coach Riles want to share then they can go ahead. I’m going to keep the culture a secret.
RN: What is it about Coach Spo that’s impressed you the most? How has he unlocked your game?
JJ: His understanding of the new era of basketball. He knows not everybody is going to look into their eyes and talk to each other. Not everybody is going to be vulnerable enough to hear a teammate tell them how they really feel. He coaches that. It’s not all about coaching basketball. It’s not all about the wins and losses to him. It’s about, can he change someone’s life in a positive way on and off the court? And the things that he does makes you want to be a better leader. His whole thing this year was, act like a champion before you’re a champion. And hearing things like that from a guy with all his experience gives you chills.
RN: This is going to be a huge off-season for you. Is it hard not to think about the future right now?
JJ: I don’t think so, coming from where I came from. I had a lot of summers where the season didn’t go well and the pressure was just building and building. This year, there is no pressure, worrying about what I’m going to do next year. All that matters to me now is going to war with these guys, getting to the playoffs and then doing more than just getting there.
RN: Obviously, you had some success in the NBA before this season but you also bounced around a bit. Did you ever think this wasn’t going to happen for you?
JJ: One thing I never did was question the road or path God has laid out for me. I never questioned it. I kept my faith and kept strong through it all. I’m not a quitter. My parents raised me not to be. And they also raised me to be a winner. So, set your mind to something and go for it. And live with those results instead of never knowing.
RN: You’re a bit of a folk hero for your karate skills. Apparently you can roundhouse kick the rim and once you almost kicked Chris Paul in the face?
JJ: That was at Wake Forest.
RN: Do you ever break out your karate moves on these guys?
JJ: I never bust it out. Every now and again I’ll sweep kick one of the equipment guys just playing around while they’re talking or whatever. We have a good time. But I never really just break it out. But I am going to kick the rim again for them... Maybe when it’s all said and done after the season.
RN: A lot of people don’t actually think you can kick the rim.
JJ: Like I said though, I don’t listen. I know what I can do.