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The bad news? The Miami Heat missed out on All-Star small forward Gordon Hayward when he decided on Tuesday to join the Boston Celtics. The good news for Heat fans? Team president Pat Riley immediately turned his attention to locking up the star his team truly needs.
The Heat and Dion Waiters agreed to terms Wednesday evening on a four-year, $52 million deal, according to Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN. There are no option years in the contract, according to multiple reports, meaning the new deal will keep the free-agent shooting guard in South Beach through the end of the 2020-21 season.
That’s a significant come-up for Waiters, who this time last year was scrambling to find a new home after the Oklahoma City Thunder responded to the departure of Kevin Durant by rescinding Waiters’ qualifying offer to create the salary cap space necessary to renegotiate and extend the contract of remaining superstar (and eventual league MVP) Russell Westbrook. Instead of being set to make $6.7 million for the 2016-17 season — and potentially more in a long-term agreement in restricted free agency — Waiters was suddenly dumped on the unrestricted market after many teams had spent the heaping mounds of cash with which they’d been gifted by the cap spike fueled by the league’s new $24 billion broadcast rights deal.
With time running out in the NBA’s annual summertime game of musical chairs, Waiters had to find a place to sit, even if it meant short-term short money. He agreed to terms with Miami on a deal that would pay him just $2.9 million for the 2016-17 campaign, but allow him to re-enter free agency come this summer. In Waiters’ own words, he bet on himself and doubled down. Now, he’s reaping the richly deserved rewards.
Like many other players in the free-agent class of 2017, the 25-year-old had to wait until the top-tier talents in the group took care of their business before his market moved. When it did, despite reported interest from the New York Knicks and Los Angeles Lakers — the latter of whom reportedly offered Waiters a one-year, $17 million pact, according to Michael Scotto of Basketball Insiders — Waiters did just what he said back in March that he wanted to do.
Namely: conclude negotiations with Riley and company as quickly as possible and return to a Heat organization that entrusted him to play his game his way, helped him get into the best physical condition of his pro hoops life, and reaped the benefits when he turned in the best play of his five-year career, averaging 15.8 points, 4.3 assists and 3.3 rebounds in 30.1 minutes per game while shooting 39.5 percent from 3-point range.
Waiters was one of many Heat players to struggle in the early part of the season, shooting just 38.4 percent from the floor in his first 16 appearances as Miami got off to a 5-11 start. Making matters worse, the former Syracuse standout suffered a groin injury that landed him on the shelf from late November through just after New Year’s, a period during which an injury-plagued and scuffling Heat team stumbled to 16 games under .500; 10 days and a four-game losing streak after Waiters’ return to the lineup, the Heat sat at 11-30, and their season looked to be all but over, with a deliberate sink to the bottom fast approaching on the horizon.
A funny thing happened on the way to the tank, though: The Heat started kicking ass.
All of a sudden, Waiters started to shake off the rust of 20 games on the shelf, developing a drive-and-kick rhythm with point guard and backcourt partner Goran Dragic that hit the gas on Miami’s previously moribund offense. All of a sudden, Spoelstra started playing smaller, quicker lineups that worked at a faster pace, using their athleticism and conditioning to overwhelm opponents not prepared for a track meet against a team that looked to be lottery-bound.
All of a sudden, the Heat were taking and making more 3-pointers, sharing the ball more often and more effectively, and winning. A lot. With Waiters coming through with big shot after big shot after big shot.
After its 11-30 start, Miami set a new NBA record for the longest winning streak ever compiled by a sub-.500 team, setting the stage for a hellacious 30-11 finish. From Jan. 15 on, no Eastern squad posted a better record than Miami, and only the All-NBA-packed eventual champion Golden State Warriors outscored their opposition by more points per possession than Riley’s collection of misfit toys. The Heat clawed their way to within one win of an improbable playoff spot … only to fall short on the final night of the season, when the Indiana Pacers and Chicago Bulls won to earn the East’s final two slots, leave Miami on the outside looking in, and leave Spoelstra feeling pretty emotional about the journey his team took over the course of the season.
The Heat concluded that journey without Waiters, who was sidelined for the final 13 games of the year with a severe ankle sprain. Had he been available to help turn Miami’s 7-6 closing kick into 8-5 or 9-4, the Heat might have been the proverbial Team Nobody Wants To Play in the first round of the playoffs. Instead, The NBA Was Lucky Dion Was Home Doing Damn Articles and plotting his next move … which, we learned Wednesday, is no move at all.
The concern, if you’re a Heat fan, is that you saw the best of Waiters because he was motivated by the push for a new contract; that the career-best 39.5 percent mark from long distance was an outlier for a player who’d shot 34.2 percent from deep through his first four seasons; and that a four-year guarantee could lead the Philly native to ease up. By making the commitment, Riley’s wagering that what Waiters produced last year in a stable environment and a steady role was his new normal; that at age 25, his best is yet to come; and that we’ll come to look at $13 million a season as a bargain for the prime years of a tough, versatile, gifted creator and complementary playmaker with limitless confidence and a willingness to take the big shot and live with the result.
They’re betting on Dion this summer like Dion bet on himself last summer. If they get the same return on investment, the Heat could be back in the playoffs next spring … which would be somewhat unfortunate for those of us who enjoyed Dion doing damn articles, but an awful lot of fun all the same.
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