Dual Anxieties: Adding Butler and Waiters to a Red Hot Heat Rotation
It’s been a strong start to the season for this short-handed Heat squad. For a time Miami struggled to keep up with the MVP-led Milwaukee Bucks, but they clawed back over the course of the second half and secured a win in overtime. Bam Adebayo’s game-saving block was the play of the night and his numbers will jump out at anyone checking the box score, but the win was truly a team effort. Goran Dragic is making a very early case for Sixth Man of the Year, Kendrick Nunn continued to impress, Kelly Olynyk reminded fans why he was so valuable to the Heat last season, and Justise Winslow managed to make a huge impact on the game despite an abysmal shooting performance (something I discussed in my last column).
These performances only increase the eagerness for Jimmy Butler’s debut. If the Jimmy-less Heat can hold their own against the best in the conference, imagine their ceiling when their superstar finally suits up in the red and black. Miami had an overall impressive night but there were plenty of moments where Butler’s impact could’ve been huge.
His elite perimeter defense could’ve held off the Buck’s barrage of first half three pointers and he’s exactly the go-to scoring threat the Heat need for when the offense slows. Heat fans have been excitedly anticipating the Butler-boost for months. Now they wait, wondering how high he can take this hot young team.
Of course there’s a flip side to this. Butler isn’t the only highly paid Heat player waiting in the wings. The first few games of the 2019-2020 campaign can be characterized by a sort of dual anxiety: the aforementioned eagerness to see Jimmy join the action and a dread at the destabilizing potential of the return of one of their more disappointing past acquisitions. Dion Waiters and James Johnson have both finished serving suspensions for falling short of the team’s famously strict conditioning requirements and, in Dion’s case, for conduct detrimental to the team.
Both players have underperformed under their current contracts and, while James Johnson should be able to slide into the team’s somewhat shallow front-court rotation, Waiters may find more difficulty. Dion has been very open about his frustration with his fading prominence in an already crowded backcourt that added a bonafide star in Butler, a tantalizing rookie talent in Tyler Herro, and an unheralded yet intriguing point guard in Kendrick Nunn.
As many salivate over the boost Butler will bring, plenty have reason to doubt whether the addition of Dion will be a positive one. Ball-dominant, excessively confident, with sky-high usage and less than stellar efficiency, it’ll be a struggle for Coach Spoelstra to incorporate Waiters in a way that is both satisfactory to him and non-detrimental to team chemistry.
A vocally dissatisfied Dion could spell disaster for a young Heat locker room, especially if he butts heads with the (in)famously nomadic and strong-willed Jimmy Butler. Pat Riley has rarely hesitated to bring in disgruntled stars like Butler because the Heat have been able to boast a strong, stable locker room atmosphere for the vast majority of his tenure. If there’s any potential threat to this long standing stability, it’d be a malcontent Dion Waiters on a contract too big to move or waive.
I don’t want this to be a Dion Waiters hit-piece. He is not solely to blame for the difficulty of the present situation. After a relatively short stretch of high level play in what was ultimately a .500 season, the Miami Heat front office decided to invest an absurd amount of money in a core that everyone and their mother knew was nothing more than mediocre. The only defense of the Dion contract at the time was that Erik Spoelstra and the Heat organization magically transformed him into a player that he had never been before.
The obviously flawed logic was that about 30 games outweighed the rest of Dion’s multi-year career. Miami has learned their lesson, investing in a newer, younger, more promising core of guys, leaving Dion as an afterthought, a holdover from an abandoned plan. There are details, both known and unknown to me, that complicate this situation, but at the end of the day the Heat made the mistake of overvaluing Waiters in the summer of 2016. As the team tries moves on from him, he understandably feels frustrated. They treated him like a star not long ago and now there doesn’t seem to be much room on the roster for him. It’s easy to demonize Dion, but the Heat created this situation. Now they have to keep it from blowing everything up.
Is the situation fixable? Sure, why not. At his best, Dion can be a valuable two-way player who can provide a shot in the arm for a stagnant offense. If Jimmy alone can’t eliminate those previously mentioned periods of offensive passivity, there will be a chance for Waiters to earn some minutes. We already know that Spoelstra is willing to experiment with rotations if someone earns it, but it will be an uphill battle. He’d have to get back into the shape he was in during the 2015-2016, he’d have to accept a reduced role on a team that firmly belongs to Jimmy Butler, and he’d have to make an impact without derailing the unselfish play that has led to an undefeated record.
It can certainly be done and Dion Waiters is no stranger to overcoming adversity. Maybe he’ll be an important addition to the second unit. Whether the result is disastrous or desirable, the return of a disgruntled Dion may be the first big test for a Heat squad that hasn’t had much to complain about in the early days of the season.