Dion Waiters did not play in an NBA basketball game in 2018.
The last game he played in was on Dec. 22, 2017, when he hurt his left ankle in the Heat’s win over the Mavericks. He then underwent season-ending surgery on Jan. 22 to repair instability and a preexisting navicular bone fracture in the ankle.
Waiters has been out ever since.
But after rejoining the Heat in practice two weeks ago and traveling to Sioux Falls, S.D., for two “training camp-like” practices with the Heat’s G League affiliate last week, Waiters began 2019 with positive news. The Heat announced Tuesday, the first day of the year, the 27-year-old guard will travel with the team for the first time since surgery to Cleveland for Wednesday’s game against the Cavaliers.
Waiters is listed as questionable for the contest.
“We’ll make that decision on the road,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said after Tuesday’s practice when asked about Waiters’ status. “We just want to get him to go through shootaround and put him in position to make the next step, which potentially could be availability [Wednesday].”
As Waiters has repeatedly said for the past few weeks, he believes he’s ready to make his return.
“I’m ready. There’s nothing else really to talk about,” he said.
If the decision is made to hold Waiters out Wednesday, he still views traveling with the team as a big step in his push to return to game action.
“It will be good just to get back acclimated to getting up for shootaround and things like that,” Waiters said. “Just being around the guys and building that chemistry again. If I don’t play, I still got to be there cheering my team on and just trying to make them better and tell them what I see out there.
“But hopefully that’s not the case, hopefully I’m out there. That’s my goal. Like I said, I’m ready to play. I’m itching. Hopefully everything goes according to plan. If not, it will come sooner or later.”
Waiters said his left ankle feels good, but it still “has its days.”
“It’s just getting acclimated to the pounding and things like that,” he said. “I just got to continue to keep getting treatment, take care of it and just make sure I do everything I need to do prior to the games and things like that. Get it loose and stuff like that.”
The Heat plans to take a methodical approach with Waiters once he does return. Spoelstra made it clear it will be different than how the team handled the comeback of James Johnson, who started in his third game back after missing the first 15 games of the season because of May surgery on a sports hernia.
“It’s not going to be like JJ where we insert him right in,” Spoelstra said. “We’re all going to have to be patient — both sides.”
When asked if he understands that approach, Waiters said: “I know it’s going to be like that. A couple games off the bench and as it builds on, we’ll go from there. At the end of the day, you got to be patient with it. You got to know guys were here. But at the end of the day, I’m a competitor. I’m going to push myself, I’m going to push the guys. We’ll go from there. We’ll figure it out from there.”
There will definitely be a lot to figure out when Waiters returns.
Waiters, who was the Heat’s starting shooting guard before surgery, will enter a crowded Heat rotation of wing players. Even with starting point guard Goran Dragic out until the February All-Star break — at the earliest — after right knee surgery, Justise Winslow, Josh Richardson, Rodney McGruder, Tyler Johnson and Dwyane Wade have found consistent roles in the rotation.
With so many wing options vying for playing time, Wayne Ellington has fallen out of the rotation. He has not played in four of the past six games.
“The tough decision is on coach, not on players,” Wade said when asked how Waiters’ impending return will impact the rotation. “We welcome him back. We’ve seen him work. Since I’ve come back, I’ve seen him put the work in to try to get back where he’s healthy and feeling good, so we can’t wait until he gets out there.
“It’s no different from what we’ve been going through all year. We’re a guard-heavy team, so whoever is called upon to do what’s next, do it. Whoever is called upon to take a lesser role, it’s what it is. It’s what we have to do.”
However it all plays out, the hope is Waiters can help improve a Heat offense that entered Tuesday ranked 22nd in the league in efficiency. The hope is also that he can eventually get back to where he was two seasons ago, when he averaged 18.4 points on 46.7 percent shooting to go with 4.8 assists during the Heat’s 30-11 finish to 2016-17.
“That’s what I do. Making plays, being a playmaker, trying to get the crowd involved,” Waiters said. “You never know when you’re going to need big-time shots, and I think I can provide that. Just a spark, just bring that energy like I always did. Just try to play every game like it’s my last. That’s my goal. Just go out there and have fun. Like I said, it’s been a long time coming. I just can’t wait until that day comes.”
▪ Heat forward James Johnson is expected to play Wednesday against the Cavaliers after missing Sunday’s loss to the Timberwolves with a stomach illness.