In the news release announcing his new contract on Friday night, Heat president Pat Riley said Dion Waiters “proved to us last season that we have found one of the best two guards in the NBA” – heady praise for a player with a 13.2 point career scoring average, a player who has started just 45 percent of his 335 NBA games.
Now Waiters, armed with a four-year, $52 million deal, is determined to validate Riley’s faith. Waiters spoke Saturday of wanting to take his game “to a whole other level.”
So that means becoming an All-Star caliber player?
“Of course,” he said. “Really just taking your game to another level, especially with leadership, trying to become a better leader, more vocal, lead by example. There's not a ceiling. If you work hard,… the sky is the limit. You never put a cap on yourself.”
He also said this roster, with the addition of Kelly Olynyk and most players back from a team that went 30-11 in the second half to close at .500, can “be special. It feels good to have everybody back almost. We have to build off what we did last year. That's what we talked about at the end of the season, how to keep this thing together.
“We felt like we had something special last year. We just wanted to keep the core together with most of the guys. We can be real good. It's going to be a different year. We've got some new pieces. We can be special.”
Waiters, who spoke to the Knicks and Lakers among others before re-signing with the Heat, said talks with other teams were “real serious. At the end of the day, you've got to make the best decision for yourself and your family.”
He said when Riley and Erik Spoelstra met him in Los Angeles last weekend, during the team’s pursuit of Gordon Hayward, their message was “just be patient. I told [Riley] I was patient, I wasn't worrying about nothing. I did what I had to do. Just had to wait it out.”
Was the process stressful?
“Hell, no,” he said. “I was just living life. I knew I took care of what I was supposed to take care of. I did what I had to do.”
Waiters gambled on himself last summer by taking a below-market-value $2.9 million deal with the Heat.
“I had the faith all along,” he said. “You've just to bet on yourself sometimes. I'd bet on myself anyday.”
Waiters spoke at a celebrity softball game at Barry University, with Hassan Whiteside, Heat executive Shane Battier, Miami Dolphins Walt Aikens and Sam Young, former UM and NFL safety Antrel Rolle and former MLB star Jose Canseco among the other participants.
Asked how he would do playing softball in front of fans and an ESPN3 audience, he said, with his typical confidence: “I feel I can do it all. That's how I am. I've been in big time moments before. I think you all know how that goes.”
• Waiters’ value cannot simply be measured by his most basic stats last season (15.8 points, 4.3 assists, 42.4 percent shooting, 39.5 percent on threes).
Four other factors that shouldn’t be overlooked in explaining Miami’s willingness to commit four years and $52 million even though injuries limited him to 46 games:
1. The Heat was 27-19 when he played, 14-22 when he didn’t. That’s a 60 percent winning percentage when he plays, topped by only the Celtics, Cavaliers and Raptors in the East last season.
2. His ability to consistently get to the basket caused defenders to converge in the paint and created a lot of open shots for others.
Waiters’ 11.0 drives per game ranked sixth in the NBA, and Goran Dragic was third with 11.9 per game. Those two guards passed 44 percent of the time when they drove to the hoop, many of those resulting in baskets.
3. Dragic and Waiters were ideal complements, each able to penetrate into the paint and each adept at playing off the ball, too. Waiters shot a Heat-best 43.4 percent on catch and shoot threes, with Dragic having a hand in a bunch of those.
And consider this: In the second half of the season, the Heat outscored teams by 51 points in the 200 minutes when Waiters and Dragic played together (or 12.2 per 48 minutes).
What’s more, Miami shot an absurd 47.1 percent on threes (66 for 140) when Waiters and Dragic were on the court together after the All-Star break – best on the team, minimum seven minutes. That can be attributed not only to their acumen in the drive and kick game, but the fact Miami could spread the floor with shooters (those two, Wayne Ellington, Luke Babbitt, Tyler Johnson etc).
4. Waiters’ defense became a strength last season. Among guards who defended at least 400 shots, Waiters allowed the third-lowest shooting percentage, 40.4 percent. Those players shot 44.7 percent overall. That ranked behind only Jason Terry and Jrue Holiday.
• Two areas where the Heat hopes Waiters’ growth was a permanent progression, not an anomaly:
1. His ability to finish on drives. After missing 10 of his first 14 shots at the rim last season, he made 40 of his final 74 such shots to finish at 50.7 percent at the rim.
Not great – Dwyane Wade made 67.6, 64.7 and 55.3 of his shots at the rim the past three years – but the Heat believes/hopes that problem has mostly been solved through lots of drill work.
2. His play in the clutch. In the final five minutes of games with a margin of five or fewer points, Waiters shot 7 for 23 for the Thunder in 2015-16 and shot 7 for 22 in the clutch for the Heat before last season’s All-Star break.
But he was 5 for 12 on clutch shots, including 4 for 9 on threes, after the break, and the Heat hopes that’s a harbinger.