Dion Waiters is out for the season following ankle surgery. What on earth are the Miami Heat going to do without him?
They’re going to win, that’s all.
Miami’s prospects can’t be measured by the fortunes of any one player.
This is how a team could have the fourth-best record in the Eastern Conference and be shut out in voting for the NBA All-Star Game. This is how you know that the famous Heat culture really works, and that coach Erik Spoelstra will keep it working no matter what kind of talent is available to him.
Imagine the reaction in any other NBA market if some team’s third-leading scorer (14.3 points per game) was lost in January. Or some team’s most fearless closer. Or some team’s rapidly improving perimeter defender?
Waiters was all three of those for the Heat and yet the announcement of his surgery Monday was treated almost like a secondary story in South Florida.
That’s because Miami has gone 10-5 since Waiters played his last game on Dec. 22, with a seven-game win streak included in that stretch.
And it’s because Wayne Ellington came off the bench to score 28 points the same night that Dion got hurt.
And it’s because everybody kind of figured that Waiters was going to be hit and miss in the Heat lineup this season even if everything went well.
Waiters really should have had his surgery in the offseason but he didn’t want to go into free agency as a rehab case. Not a good look, especially after missing the final 13 games of last season, when Miami was finishing up a mad dash that ended one victory short of a playoff spot.
Is anybody mad at Waiters for getting a four-year, $52 million deal with the Heat and so far not paying very much of that back in terms of production? Far from it. If anything, the guy is being credited with wanting to be a part of what Pat Riley and Spoelstra are building in Miami, and for wanting to be somewhere that he can improve his game and his reputation for professional work habits.
Waiters talked with the Knicks and Lakers, too, during free agency. Those franchises are famous for giving boatloads of money to any player with a flash of ticket-selling style. Miami, that’s for reclamation projects — veterans who have never started much for other teams, scorers who don’t know how to play defense, dunkers who never learned how to shoot or pass or get out running on the fast break.
Waiters joined the Heat universe in the summer of 2016. No longer prized by LeBron James in Cleveland or by Russell Westbrook in Oklahoma City, the former first-round draft pick settled on a relatively small $2.9 million deal with Miami. He was the 10th-highest-paid player on the team at first but essentially bet on himself as the shooting guard who would take the place of Dwyane Wade and earn himself a massive contract down the line.
Miami went 27-19 with Waiters in the lineup last season and he was a catalyst for the team’s amazing second-half turnaround. On the other hand, the former Syracuse star has missed a lot of time and now he will miss a lot more. This might even be the moment to start thinking about trading Waiters, if only his contract and his injury status weren’t such heavy anchors.
As always, the Heat keep moving, from a tie for the seventh seed in the East when Waiters left the lineup to fourth place today, right behind the Cavaliers.
Miami went 7-6, for that matter, while Hassan Whiteside was missing a significant chunk of December. Included in there was a one-point win at Boston that Goran Dragic and James Johnson also missed.
Dragic is another interesting case. Miami was in a real fix last season whenever he was in street clothes, but the record is 3-2 without him this year. The Dragon is listed as probable for Thursday night’s game with Sacramento, but if Spoelstra sees reason to wait before tipoff, he can afford to be a little more cautious with what is described as a bruised knee.
Now who were we talking about again? Oh, yeah, Dion Waiters.
Too bad he’ll miss the rest of this run, but not so bad that he and every other player gets the point of all this.
Miami has pushed all the way out to 27-20 without pausing to mourn any particular injury. There’s no truly spectacular headline in all of that, but there is the promise of continued headway.