By James Holas
Tip your cap to the 2017 Miami Heat for turning an 11-30 first half into a 41-41 season, but we’ve seen this before, albeit never on such a grand scale.
The 2008 Houston Rockets started a respectable 22-19, then hit the turbo button, winning 22 in a row and 33 of their last 41. This past season, the Washington Wizards won 49 games, but were 13-19 through Christmas, then tore out on a 28-8 run through mid-March. Portland has started off the last two seasons a combined 19-27, but earned a playoff berth in both by finishing 33-18 and 23-14, respectively.
Here’s where the Heat go off script. No team had ever started off SO poorly, then rallied to finish .500 like Miami just did. The voracious rebounding and shot blocking of Hassan Whiteside, the rim forays of Goran Dragic, the all around floor game of the “Johnson & Johnson” duo (guard Tyler Johnson and forward James Johnson combined for 26.5 points, 8.9 rebounds, and 6.8 assists a night last year), all were big parts of the Heat resurgence.
But it was Dion Waiters who stepped out of the phone booth and saved Miami’s season.
Waiters is the chaos engine head coach Erik Spoelstra harnessed within the chassis of the Heat culture. Instead of attempting to change Dion like the Cleveland Cavaliers did, or pigeon-hole him into a narrow role like the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Heat put the ball in his hands and lets him just…go. He’ll bring the ball up and initiate the offense, or he’ll be the payoff, meaning Miami runs action meant to get Waiters going downhill with the ball in his hands, trusting him to make plays for himself or for others.
Every bit of his hometown Philly is on display in Dion Waiters’ game. Some call it brash, but it was that confidence on display as he went toe-to-toe with the best in the NBA during the Heat’s second half surge. There’s no doubt in his 6-foot-5 inch broad shouldered frame, from the exaggerated pounding handle to the precise footwork of his knuckleball jumper, Dion carries himself like the best player on the floor.
And many times last season, Waiters produced like the very best in the league. See him erupt for 33 as Miami bum-rushed the Bucks. Watch him slap up 23-10-7 in another victory over Houston. Thrill as he goes shot-for-shot with former teammate Kyrie Irving, scoring 29 to Irving’s 32 in a stirring win over the Cavs.
Smaller defenders got bulldozed and any big unlucky enough to switch out got blown by. In between, Waiters fed defenders a steady diet of his off-beat mid-range game, rocking the defense on it’s heels before exploding into his now trademark step-back jumper.
Waiters showed he could make his impact on or off ball, either bursting off the screen as a pick and roll ball handler, or knifing into open spaces on the wings for catch and shoot looks as he plays off of point guard Goran Dragic. A career 33 percent shooter from three, Waiters transformed himself into a sniper, draining a career-high 39.5 percent of his 4.2 threes a night.
And It’s not just about scoring. Waiters also set personal highs in assist rate, true shooting percentage, player efficiency and offensive rating.
As Dion Waiters went, so went the Heat, and Dion proceeded to go off. In the second half of the season, Waiters averaged 18.2 points, 3.5 rebounds, and 4.8 assists a night while draining a scorching 44.5 percent of his triples. For perspective, only Steve Nash, Kevin Johnson, and Steph Curry have ever posted those types of numbers over a full season.
Then Waiters went down from a sprained ankle against the Minnesota Timberwolves and things fell apart. With Dion out, the Heat sputtered down the stretch, losing seven of their last 16 games, coming up just short of the playoffs.
With the Heat whiffing on big name free agents, general manager Pat Riley turned his eye inward. The Heat front office shelled out $145 million bucks to re-sign Waiters (four years, $52 million) and James Johnson (three years, $43 million) and to lure ex-Celtic Kelly Olynyk (four years, $50 million) into the fold, banking on continuity and the potency of Waiters and Dragic’s dual drive and kick games lifting the team back into the upper echelon of the East.
We’ve seen Waiters at his best, now the next step for the 24-year old wing will be consistency. We can’t ignore his part in the squad’s putrid start, when he averaged 14.2 points and shot 38.4 percent while Miami scuffled to a 5-11 record.
And this wasn’t the first time that Waiters unleashed his full powers on the league, just the first time it really mattered. Back in 2014, as the Cavaliers slogged through a 33 win crapfest, spent the final month and a half of the year averaging 21.2 points and 4.2 assists a game, leading to some hasty conclusions about Waiters’ future.
Cut to the next season with LeBron in town, and Waiters was averaging a measly 10 points and 28 percent from 3 before Cleveland shipped him off to OKC.
Will Waiters slow down now that’s he’s gotten his payday? Can he be maintain that top flight production, or will his up and down consistency cap the potential of the good-but-not-great collection of talent in South Beach. Miami certainly isn’t the pile of pig-flop that started 11-30, but they also aren’t the powerhouse that, at one point, won 22 of 28 games and boasted a point differential akin to offensive heavyweights like the Golden State Warriors and Rockets.
With so many stars heading West, the Heat are almost a lock for the playoffs. How high can they climb up the Eastern hierarchy? That all depends on if Dion Waiters is ready to be the player he always knew he was.