With Dion Waiters reportedly opting for season-ending ankle surgery, the Heat loses its starting shooting guard, one of its most skilled penetrators and a dangerous late-game weapon who scored 48 points in 48 clutch minutes this season.
So how does Miami replace him? Exploring the available options:
▪ No. 1. The return of Rodney McGruder and Justise Winslow.
Winslow has missed 14 games with a strained knee but his return is considered imminent, perhaps as early as Sunday’s game against Milwaukee.
McGruder, out since preseason with a broken tibia, is still considered several weeks away from a return, with a comeback looming around the time of the Feb. 18 All-Star Game, or soon after. Erik Spoelstra has said McGruder definitely will play this season.
From a playing time standpoint, Winslow and McGruder — combined with expanded roles for Tyler Johnson and Wayne Ellington — could easily fill Waiters’ 30.6 minutes per game.
A pesky 6-4 defender with the ability to play shooting guard or small forward, McGruder thrived as a starter during the Heat’s 30-11 finish last season, shooting 45 percent in February and 45.3 percent in March to boost his overall season accuracy to 41.3. He shot just 33.2 percent on threes for the season but 40.3 percent in February.
Winslow, who played small forward primarily early in his three-year career, had carved out a niche as a power forward this season. But he now might be needed in more of a small forward role, backing up Josh Richardson and perhaps allowing Richardson to log more time in the backcourt.
Winslow’s shooting, his biggest shortcoming, had started to come around before his injury. He made seven of 12 three-pointers in five games before he was sidelined, raising his season three-point percentage to 39.0, well above his 28.6 career average.
▪ No. 2. Acquiring a player from the outside.
With the loss of Waiters for the season, the Heat can apply for a $5.5 million disabled player’s exception that, if granted, must be utilized by March 12 and can be used only to acquire a player on an expiring contract. The Heat must apply for that exception by Monday and would need to open a roster spot to use it.
If the Heat cannot find a trade option with that $5.5 million before the Feb. 8 trade deadline, the alternative would be saving it and seeing what players receive buyouts. Players who have been in the NBA this season must be released by March 1 to be playoff-eligible elsewhere.
The Heat cannot trade any first-round pick before 2023 and has no second-round pick until 2022, which could be an impediment in trade conversations.
Keep in mind that Waiters must remain on the Heat’s roster; the NBA has no disabled list to stash players.
Wing players on lottery-bound teams who are on expiring contracts and could be in play for trades or buyouts include:
Brooklyn 6-6 shooting guard Joe Harris, who’s averaging 10 points on 46.1 percent shooting and is a bargain at $1.5 million.
Dallas combo guard Devin Harris, who’s earning $4.4 million and averaging 8.4 points on 40.9 percent shooting.
Atlanta swingman Marco Belinelli, who’s averaging 11.8 points and is a skilled three-point shooter. He wouldn’t be an option for Miami with a disabled player exception because he’s earning $6.6 million, but he could be if he’s bought out.
Lakers swingman Corey Brewer. Like Belinelli, he’s not an option for a trade with the disabled exception player money because of his $7.7 million salary, but he would be an option if bought out. A skilled defender, Brewer is shooting 48 percent but averaging just 3.5 points and 12 minutes per game.
Memphis swingman Tyreke Evans, who’s having by far the best season of any player on this list, having overcome a history of knee problems to average 19.9 points on 46.9 percent shooting. But he’s earning $2.9 million and it’s doubtful the Grizzlies would give him away. They could opt to resign him this summer.
Memphis swingman James Ennis. The former Heat player is averaging 6.8 points on 50 percent shooting (34.8 percent on threes) on a $2.9 million contract and could be in play before the trade deadline.
Orlando swingman Arron Afflalo. He’s averaging 8.1 points and shooting just 37.9 percent with a bench role for the Magic, but he’s a 38.5 percent career three-point shooter earning just $3.8 million.
Orlando small forward Mario Hezonja. The Magic is reportedly shopping the disappointing former fifth overall pick of the 2015 draft. He’s averaging 6.8 points and shooting 34.1 percent on threes on an expiring contract paying him $4 million this season.
Sacramento swingman Vince Carter. Not an option for a trade ($8 million) and wouldn’t necessarily be an appealing option if bought out because of diminished skills at age 40. He’s averaging 4.0 points and shooting 37 percent in 25 games.
▪ No. 3. Eventually converting swingman Derrick Jones Jr.’s two-way contract into a standard contract.
That move would require creating a roster spot, likely by releasing center A.J. Hammons, who seemingly has no future with the Heat but has been retained because his contract can be used in a trade. Hammons is guaranteed $1.3 million this season and $1.5 million next season.
Jones, who started two games for the Heat this week and impressed everyone with his athleticism, can spend only 17 more days in the NBA this season if the Heat keeps him on a two-way contract. The Heat could keep Jones on that two-way deal through the trade deadline and possibly beyond before determining what to do with him.