Overconfident. Inefficient. Selfish.
Those were just some of the factors that surrounded Dion Waiters during the 2016 NBA free agency period. Factors which arguably were reasons why he didn’t command as big a pay day as other players in a market with a ton of money going around.
The former fourth overall pick by the Cleveland Cavaliers eventually settled on a $2.9 million deal with the Miami Heat, partly so that he could salvage his reputation with a franchise known for elevating the play of NBA castoffs, but also because his stock wasn’t exactly hot commodity.
Months later and just weeks from the regular season coming to a close, and it’s safe to say the Waiters-Heat marriage has been a successful one.
Waiters is averaging solid numbers across the board: 16.1 points per game, 4.4 assists, and 3.4 rebounds, while also shooting 42.3% from the field and 40.2% from deep, per NBA.com.
Since the Heat began its stretch in January of winning 21 times in 26 games, the 25-year-old has put up close to 20 points a contest while shooting just a shade under 50%.
That overconfidence? It’s still there. But the inefficiency and selfishness? Definitely not.
It’s clear that the Heat, which opened its campaign at 11-30 before going on an improbable hot streak that has the team in the thick of the playoff race, would not be in the position it’s in right now if not for Waiters’ play. Team President Pat Riley, Head Coach Erik Spoelstra, and the rest of Heat management preferred not to listen to the outside noise on Waiters before signing him, and that decision has benefited Miami big time.
“From what we saw, we thought he could be a good fit. We wanted to be open-minded and not necessarily listen to the reputation about him and be open-minded to coaching him and bringing him into our culture, our structure, and see if we could help develop him as a professional basketball player and hopefully try to develop him into a winner,” Spoelstra told members of the media in the Philippines during a conference call via Cisco.
The two-time champion head coach said that Waiters, who played last season for an OKC Thunder team which made the Western Conference Finals, had the kind of “big, pressure playoff moments” experience which intrigued the Heat.
“Dion has been a joy to coach,” said Spoelstra, who also explained that Waiters’ willingness to become dedicated to the Heat culture has allowed him to make a leap in his NBA career.
“I thought he was really open-minded to our culture. We have a saying here that we’re not for everybody. That doesn’t mean it’s better or worse or anything in between, but we’re not for everybody. There’s a particular player that we look for, if they’re open-minded to our culture and our work ethic, it could be a beautiful thing. It could be a great fit, and I think you’re seeing him take another big step forward in his career, but we want to continue to push forward.”
Outside of an improved deep ball and efficiency, Waiters has also displayed passings skills that have helped the Heat become one of the best drive-and-kick teams in the NBA. Waiters is also a sturdy defender. All these qualities have enabled Miami to be one of the top teams in the league on both sides of the ball since the turn of the calendar year.
From a club which looked sure of heading for the NBA Draft Lottery, Miami (32-35) is currently half a game back for the eighth seed, a game back of the seventh seed, and two games back of the sixth seed. Instead of searching for highlights of Lonzo Ball on YouTube, Heat fans now constantly check game results of playoff roadblocks like Indiana, Detroit, Milwaukee, and Chicago.
But there’s something else Waiters brings to the table that not many players in the NBA are capable of - something which is a positive result from his overconfidence.
“Obviously at end of games, I don’t know if there’s many more guys in the league that are more confident than him at the end. In pressure situations, you need guys like that. It’s a competitive, tough league and you need guys that think they can conquer the world,” said the Heat’s head coach.
Waiters has hit multiple big-time, late-game shots this season. During Miami’s current winning stretch, he nailed game-sealing 3-pointers against Golden State, Cleveland, Brooklyn, and Charlotte. According to this stat by Basketball Reference from a week ago, Waiters has a better eFG% in the final two minutes of a close game than superstars like LeBron James, James Harden, Steph Curry, Russell Westbrook, and Kevin Durant.
“He’s confidence is so huge for us,” said Waiters’ backcourt mate, Goran Dragic, who’s also enjoying a career season with the Heat. “He’s playing unbelievable basketball right now and he’s not afraid to take those last shots. Sometimes you can see what he can do.
“He can go on a run and make three in a row or he can hit some crazy shots. We need that. We feel like he’s playing the best basketball of his life and we have a great chemistry with him. We want him to keep being aggressive and try to make plays for us.”
If there’s one negative for the Heat that arises from Waiters’ great play, it’s that it will cost higher to retain him during this summer’s free agency period. Waiters signed a two-year deal with Miami last year, but the second year on the contract is a player option, one he’s most likely going to decline given the increased attraction he’s bound to receive from potential suitors.
The good news? It looks as if Waiters wants to stay in Miami.
From The Miami Herald:
In a weak market for free agent shooting guards, Waiters – a bargain at $2.9 million this season - could cost a bundle: perhaps $14 million or more this summer, and the Heat doesn’t need to decide yet if it’s going to pay it until Miami sees the closing chapter of the most impressive run of Waiters’ five-year career.
But Waiters, 25, already knows how he wants this summer to play out.
“I want to get it done as quick as possible,” he said, hoping Heat longterm interest is mutual. “Let's keep this thing rolling by any means. I don't want to go into free agency with a couple days and make a decision. I don't want that. I know where I want to be. Let's just get it done. My mom loves it here. Would be mad at me [if I left]. My son loves it. My family loves it.”
What’s Spoelstra’s reaction about Waiters’ impending free agency?
“That will happen in July and our approach has always been, if you just focus on the season right now, everything that you want, players want, if the season goes the way we would hope for, then everything and everybody gets taken care of.”