There was one year, maybe, when Dion Waiters got it, and it was actually only half a year, because he missed 36 games with injury, including the last month of the season. It’s not a stretch to say Dion represented the margin between the Heat making the playoffs and missing them; he was playing the best ball of his career as his team surged in 2017. From mid-January to mid-March, the Heat, miserable before the calendar turned over, went 23-and-5, and over that span, Dion shot 46.7 percent from the field, averaged 18.4 points and 4.8 assists per night. In the middle of this run, Erik Spoelstra claimed that the fifth-year guard was turning a corner. “He’s really embraced our culture,” Spoelstra said. “We’ve been open-minded and embraced him and his personality. It’s been reciprocal.”
He picked up an ankle injury in March that derailed Miami’s postseason push, and even worse, the injury lingered for a long time. The Heat paid him over the summer—four years, $52 million—assuming that they were signing the version of him they had helped create, but he couldn’t maintain the level of play he had set for himself. Throughout the fall of 2017, even by his capricious gunner standards, Dion was erratic: four points one night and 22 the next. He was playing through pain. The team shut him down in December and sent him to get ankle surgery in January. It took him nearly a year to get back on the court.
From there, it’s been either been downhill or about what you’d expect, depending on how much of a Waiters optimist you’ve been since he entered the league. It’s hard to argue that the guy who was lifting the Heat from the Eastern Conference basement into playoff contention a few seasons ago is who he truly is; that near-triumph is looking more like an aberrational glimmer all the time. There were spells in J.R. Smith and Monta Ellis’s careers when they evoked bleary, sun-bleached images of Ray Allen and Allen Iverson, but those comparisons never held up to scrutiny for long. To be fair to Dion, he hasn’t been consistently healthy since the ankle started giving him problems. His body has let him down.
He’s let himself down, too. He showed up in Miami on his best behavior, but that discipline has all but completely eroded. He’s been out of shape. He’s talked smack about Erik Spoelstra on social media. Last month, he ate some weed gummies on a team flight and had a panic attack. A couple weeks ago, he called in sick and then was photographed on a yacht. Dion hasn’t played a single game this season and he’s been suspended by the team three times. If this isn’t the end of his Miami career, that’s only because he’s signed through 2021 and will prove difficult to move considering his salary, output, and behavior. He’s cratering at the moment, and he’s not such a great player that the Heat or any other team in the league will put up with what he’s going through for much longer.
But he is assuredly going through something. Dwyane Wade, who is a kind of mentor to Dion, explained recently that he suffers when he’s not locked into the routine that regular gametime provides. “The kid loves to hoop,” Wade said. “What we’re seeing right now is now that the game was taken away from him, he doesn’t know how to deal with it.” He elaborated further: “You taking kids out of inner city and throw them in this big world and expect them to be perfect… You’ve got to understand. It’s not so easy to say he should do X, Y and Z. That’s not how he was raised. It’s a tough situation.”
Wade’s comments are clarifying, and tinged with sadness. There is a sense that this is all getting away from Dion Waiters, in ways that are both his fault and beyond his control. How much of a knucklehead’s obstinancy do you blame on the guy himself, and how much of it is circumstance, or cosmic inertia? We all have at least one person in our lives who simply cannot get out of their own way, for whom everything is unnecessarily difficult. They’re extremely frustrating but also sympathetic figures. It seems that Dion is like that, or at least that is Wade’s gloss on the situation.
Here’s the part that feels like piling on: Dion Waiters has rarely been a net-positive on the court, over any extended period of time. He’s not a good defender. He’s inefficient. It would be nice to say he’s an intangible talent in the Marcus Smart mould, but it wouldn’t be true either. The guy’s a scoring bench guard who thinks he’s a star. Those types are pretty abundant, and most of them don’t have Dion’s baggage.
This is to say that he’s in the midst of what might be his ultimate demise, perhaps close to its conclusion, the beginning of it a now-faraway strip of land that’s forgetting him. There’s time, because he’s got a contract, but not a lot of it. Does Dion know that? If he thinks this is more like a rough patch than an existential struggle, he’s a goner. But it’s impossible to know what he believes. Probably even a friend like Dwyane Wade is making an educated guess. Dion Waiters needs to figure himself out, quickly, because nobody else will. There are hard limits to what other people will try to understand, and what they’ll put up with.