In Dion Waiters’ first two games back from left ankle surgery, he sat on the Heat’s bench waiting to hear his name called.
Waiters, a 27-year-old guard, was subbed in during Wednesday’s win over the Cavaliers after missing a year because of his ankle issues. He finished with seven points in 11 minutes in his season debut.
But after Waiters was a healthy scratch in Friday’s win over the Wizards, he went into his third game back with a different approach Sunday in Atlanta.
“I just let it be what it is,” Waiters said following the Heat’s 106-82 blowout loss to the Hawks.
It turned out to be another healthy scratch for Waiters, who is in the second season of a four-year, $52 million contract he signed with Miami in the summer of 2017. He has been a DNP-CD (did not play, coach’s decision) in two of the three games he has been available for since his return.
“I don’t know. I just suit up,” said Waiters, with the Heat now moving on to Tuesday’s home matchup against the Nuggets. “At the end of the day, that’s the coach. He controls all that. That’s out of my control. The only thing I can do is be ready.”
Sharpshooter Wayne Ellington, who signed a one-year, $6.3 million deal this past summer to return to the Heat, has been forced to use a similar approach. He has received nine DNP-CDs in the past 13 games after setting a career high and team record with 227 made three-pointers last season.
“It’s been tough,” Ellington said. “Obviously, I’m a competitor at the end of the day. I want to be out there. I feel like I can help our team, of course. It’s been a situation that’s been tough for me. But guys have been great, keeping my mind right, keeping me upbeat. I’ve just been trying to feed them the same energy that they’re feeding me. So I’m working my butt off, continuing to stay ready and whatever happens will happen, I guess.”
Heat coach Erik Spoelstra has stuck with a 10-man rotation recently that has led to wins more often than not, with Justise Winslow, Josh Richardson, Rodney McGruder, James Johnson and Hassan Whiteside starting, and Dwyane Wade, Tyler Johnson, Bam Adebayo, Kelly Olynyk and Derrick Jones Jr. playing off the bench.
That means no Waiters or Ellington. The only game that Waiters played in came with Wade out because he was sick.
When asked if Waiters or Ellington could have helped in Sunday’s loss that included season lows in points (82) and shooting percentage (35.6), Spoelstra said: “Yeah, I don’t know. When you have a game like this, anything would have been a better answer than what I did or what we did. So, it’s just all across the board.”
Spoelstra has continued to preach patience with Waiters, and said Saturday that “we have months left in the season and that’s how I’m approaching it.”
“Of course you want to play,” said Waiters, who was Miami’s third-leading scorer behind Goran Dragic and Whiteside in 2016-17. “You bust your [butt] getting back, you want to play. You feel as though you go out there and help the team, especially me knowing that I can and whatever the minutes I play, I feel as though I can impact the game. It’s tough. I’ll be lying to you if I said it wasn’t.
“But at the end of the day, I got to stay ready and prepared mentally. I can’t let this type of stuff get me down. The best part about this is going home to my kids and they’ll put a smile on my face.”
Spoelstra’s rotation decisions are only going to get tougher when Dragic returns from right knee surgery that’s expected to keep him out until February’s All-Star break. That will give the Heat 13 rotation-level players, and Spoelstra has been using a 10-man rotation for most of the season.
Waiters admitted his situation “can be frustrating.” Even though he understands he’s not ready for his usual workload, he believes playing in games can help him find his rhythm again after a year away.
“I’m a competitor and I would love to be playing and working my way back gradually, and just keep building on that so it doesn’t have to take too long for me to get back,” Waiters said. “Like I said, playing, that’s what it’s going to take to get me back. It’s actually playing, seeing it more and more even if we started out small and continued to just keep building that load up.”
For now, Waiters knows patience is his only option.
“I got to [be patient]. I can’t get down,” he said. “I worked hard to get back. Whenever that time comes, I guess it comes.”