Dion Waiters has seldom seemed more valuable to the Miami Heat than he does right now, in dress clothes, nursing a sprained left ankle, not playing.
It is this Waiters whose benefit to the team appears so indispensable that one wonders if, in his absence, club president Pat Riley may be reevaluating the Heat's plans for Waiters and its commitment to him as he becomes a free agent this coming summer.
Miami was steaming toward the playoffs, with Waiters, as one of the great comeback stories of this NBA season.
Now, without Waiters, the Heat is trying to hang on as the regular season ebbs.
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"At the end of the day, we miss him," as teammate James Johnson put it.
At the beginning of the day, too.
Miami has lost two games in a row and three of the past four, all sans Waiters, entering Tuesday night's game in Detroit that looms so big in the playoff race. Ill timed, this marks the Heat's worst four-game stretch since Jan. 6-13, and now the team faces the prospect of being without Waiters for the remaining nine games of the regular season. Coach Erik Spoelstra says there is "no timetable" for his return -- and who'd have believed there might be such foreboding attached to the absence of a player signed before this season as little more than a spare part?
The recent lull without Waiters is no aberration or misleading small sample. Miami is 28-19 this season with Waiters in the lineup, and is now 7-19 without him. That's stark. Waiters was a major contributor to the rebound from an 11-30 record at midseason, and his absence now has imperiled the team's playoff chances.
Goran Dragic or maybe Hassan Whiteside have been the team’s MVP this season, with James Johnson rerpresenting the unsung division, but, based on that with-and-without-him won-lost differential alone, put Waiters somewhere in that conversation.
Though inconsistent, Waiters' ability to drive into the paint and to create shots for himself and others has been a huge part of the offense, which plummets by an average of nine points per game without him. More burden falls onto Dragic in Waiters' absence, and Josh Richardson has not proved up to the task of replacing him in the starting lineup.
Waiters entered the league as the fourth overall draft pick out of Syracuse in 2010, audaciously answering to the nickname "Kobe Wade." The career
underachievement that followed is why he was modestly priced and available to Miami, but in his spark this season, and his value when absent, we have
seen glimpses of why regard for him was so high, once.
This late-season heat scramble to make the playoffs is so different -- refreshingly so -- from the boredom of excellence we grew used to during the Big 3 era of Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Chris Bosh, when regular seasons were rendered all but meaningless as the playoffs were a foregone conclusion and Miami sailed to four consecutive NBA Finals.
Now the Heat -- holding the No. 8 Eastern Conference seed entering Tuesday, the final playoff ticket -- is among seven teams bunched between 10 1/2 and 14 1/2 games behind conference leaders Cleveland and Boston.
Miami is equidistant between possibly finishing as high as the fifth seed and maybe finishing as low as the 12th depending on results down the stretch --
with Waiters' absence casting the whole thing precariously.
From the boredom of excellence to the anxiety of a nightly scramble and a mad scrum for a last seed.
What a luxury it once was to think that, in the NBA, the regular season didn't matter.