By all accounts, Miami Heat guard Dion Waiters turned the corner in his NBA career last season.
Waiters, 25, came to the Heat with a reputation for being a selfish, moody player his first six seasons in the league, more concerned about his stat line. But by the end he was being praised by teammates, coaches and executives as a player who, not only worked hard off the court to get himself in world-class shape but was solid defensively and became the consummate teammate and a primary reason Miami recovered from an 11-30 start to finish .500.
“I think he just realizes now what it takes to be a great player,” president Pat Riley said.
But not everyone agrees.
The 6-foot-4 Waiters signed a two-year, $5.9 million contract last summer, with an early termination clause for 2017-18. He is expected to exercise that clause – leaving $3 million on the table – and become a free agent where he might command a contract starting at at least $15 million. And before spraining his left ankle causing him to miss the final 13 games of the season, Waiters appeared to be among the top shooting guards on the market, and possibly the No. 1 option depending on whether Dwyane Wade was available.
But several outlets believe that is not even close.
The Vertical ranks Waiters fifth among free against shooting guards behind Wade – if he declines his player option with the Bulls for $23.8 million, which appears unlikely – Detroit’s Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, the Clippers’ J.J. Redick and Atlanta’s Tim Hardaway Jr.
Basketball Insiders lists Waiters in its Tier 2 of shooting guards along with Hardaway and Brooklyn’s Sean Kilpatrick. Tier 1 includes Caldwell-Pope, Redick and Wade.
And Hoops Hype ranks Waiters 25th among all free agents, one spot behind the Knicks Derrick Rose and two spots behind Golden State’s Andre Iguodala.
Perhaps the biggest knock on Waiters is he played just 46 games, having missed additional time because of a torn groin muscle. He averaged 15.8 points, 4.3 assists and 3.3 rebounds, while shooting 42.4 percent. But his per-36-average was 19.0 ppg (Redick’s was 19.2, Hardaway’s 19.1 and Caldwell-Pope’s 14.9).
But those numbers become more impressive over the second half of the season, starting when the Heat were 11-30 and went on a 13-game winning streak.
Waiters played in 25 of Miami’s final 41 games, averaging 18.4 points, 4.8 assists and 3.6 rebounds. He shot 46.7 percent from the field and 44.5 on 3 pointers.
“Dion can create off the dribble and create space and get to areas of the court when you can get up shots in late clock situations,” Riley said. “He’s going to become a better finisher, higher percentage as a finisher because he goes to the rack all the time. I think he gets into the paint 12 to 14 times per game and he’s kicking and everything.
“Dion has this affable defiance. … you got to have that in a guy that wants to win games and take big shots.”
It will be interesting to see if the people that matter – NBA teams in need of a shooting guard – agree. If so, and Waiters does not receive the offers he is expecting, the Heat have indicated they would be happy to have him back.