For all of the unevenness in his game during his six-plus year NBA career, Heat guard Dion Waiters represents this roster’s best chance — perhaps last chance — to be anything more than a middling 40- to 45-win team.
That’s why Erik Spoelstra must not wait any longer to insert Waiters into his rotation. That process must begin Tuesday against visiting Denver, and we would be mildly surprised if it doesn’t.
Waiters — a year removed from ankle surgery — warrants at least 15 minutes of playing time beginning immediately, and as he regains his rhythm, Miami must move toward reinserting him into the starting lineup within a couple of weeks, provided he plays at least decently.
With Dwyane Wade in his career twilight, Waiters is the only healthy guard on the roster capable of doing — over a prolonged period — what Waiters achieved in the second half of 2016-17: 18.4 points and 4.8 assists per game while shooting 49.3 percent from the field and 44.8 on three-pointers.
The Heat’s not going to get that from Rodney McGruder or Tyler Johnson. And Miami (sixth in the East at 19-19) needs to see if it can get that from Waiters to have any chance to contend with Philadelphia, Boston, Milwaukee or Toronto in a first-round playoff series.
For all of the emphasis on defense, the Heat’s starting group of Hassan Whiteside, James Johnson, McGruder, Josh Richardson and Justise Winslow lacks enough scoring punch, especially without Goran Dragic, who’s out until mid-February after knee surgery.
Those five, when playing together, have averaged 108 points per 48 minutes, which would rank 21st in the league, and have shot 46 percent, which would rank 14th.
Overall, the Heat is just 25th in the league in scoring at 106.5 points per game; there’s no team currently holding a playoff seed that’s rated worse than 25th.
But that starting five relies too much on Winslow being on point with his shot. And while there has been improvement there, he has shot 4 for 15, 3 for 11 and 6 for 16 in three of Miami’s past four games.
That’s why replacing McGruder with Waiters in the starting lineup makes a lot of sense.
Ellington, too, hasn’t deserved 14 DNP-CD’s (did not play/coach’s decision) after a season in which he set an NBA record for most threes by a reserve (227) and on a team that ranks just outside the top 10 in three-point shooting (35.4).
The end game must be Waiters in the starting lineup and Ellington, Tyler Johnson and McGruder essentially alternating as a 10th man – behind reserves Wade, Bam Adebayo, Derrick Jones Jr. and Kelly Olynyk — depending on the matchup, who’s playing well and what the Heat needs that particular night.
Jones needs to remain in the rotation because of his defensive work, energy and across-the-board contributions.
There seemingly is something of a disconnect between management and the coaching staff on Waiters.
After giving Waiters a four-year, $52 million contract in the summer of 2017, Pat Riley spoke of Waiters as “one of the most talented two guards, two-way guards at not only attacking the basket, but raising on threes. He had one of the top defensive percentages in the league. He’s an end-of-the-game, end-of-the-shot-clock player. A lot of times you can’t find those kind of players.”
That doesn’t sound like the type of player who shouldn’t be playing at all for a .500 team, after being cleared medically to return and going through a bunch of arduous practices.
Perhaps the organization has soured somewhat on Waiters since giving him that big contract. After all, Miami tried aggressively to trade him last summer, according to two opposing general managers.
I’m generally not in the habit of giving advice to two-time championship coaches who are building Hall of Fame resumes.
That said, the Heat needs to see a significant sample size of the new Waiters — with his ankle finally repaired — not only to determine if he can raise this roster’s perceived ceiling, but also so that it has additional information to make prudent decisions before the Feb. 7 NBA trade deadline.
Spoelstra likely would have arrived at that conclusion eventually anyhow, but there’s no reason to delay the process.
▪ Riley wants Waiters to become a better free-throw shooter, with his 70.4 average subpar for a starting NBA guard. He’s 0 for 2 from the line this season.
“I can’t believe he’s not an 80 percent free-throw shooter,” Riley said two summers ago after giving him that contract. “So we just want to make him more efficient.”
▪ One thing that’s clear with Waiters: The Whiteside/James Johnson power rotation tandem has played better with Waiters in the lineup.
Last season, with Waiters out for all but 30 games, the Heat was outscored by 87 points — including by 34 in the playoffs — when Whiteside and Johnson played together.
But Miami outscored teams by three when Waiters joined the two of them in the lineup last season. Over two seasons, the Heat is plus-48 when the three of them play together at once.
This season, they have played no minutes together in three games.
▪ Though James Johnson doesn’t have all of his explosiveness back after sports hernia surgery, there are encouraging signs.
He’s shooting 32 for 61 in his past eight games and 10 for 18 on three-pointers in his past five. And when he drives to the basket, he has usually been effective.
“I have been feeling like I’ve got my legs back,” he said. “I’m able to attack more. My jumper is falling. I’m more confident in that.”
He said Heat assistant coach Eric Glass always tells him to drive, which is when Johnson is at his best.
“We’ve been working on that driving and make sure I am putting my chest on guys and putting a shoulder on guys’ chest and keep driving,” he said. “Using the extra dribble, little things that as you get older, you have to start figuring out better ways to be effective.”
Johnson’s rebounding numbers aren’t yet where they need to be. He has 10 in the past four games.
▪ Udonis Haslem was quoted by Basketball Insiders recently as saying he plans to retire after the season, confirming what was widely expected.