While some social media users met the news of Waiters’s plight with stoner humor and memories of their own bad trips, the Heat wasn’t laughing in the slightest.
Heat Coach Erik Spoelstra walked away from a question about the incident during his postgame news conference Friday, and the organization slapped Waiters with a 10-game suspension Sunday. In an unusually stern news release, the Heat said it was “very disappointed” in Waiters over the “very scary” plane incident, questioned his “professionalism” and noted that “there have been a number of instances this season in which Dion has engaged in conduct detrimental to the team.”
The financial implications were as grave as the Heat’s language. Waiters will miss out on a $1.2 million bonus he could have collected had he played in 70 games this season, and the lost money from his 10-game ban will total more than $800,000 of his $12.1 million salary. A 10-game ban is an extraordinary punishment by NBA standards, because such penalties usually only come from the league office, rather than a team, and are reserved for major fights, serious drug violations or other heavy misconduct.
Waiters’s time in Miami has unfolded in three acts. One: He turned the best season of his career into a four-year, $52 million contract in 2017, and he briefly appeared to be a potential centerpiece. Two: A string of injuries, coupled with Dwyane Wade’s retirement tour, moved him out of the spotlight. Three: Frustration over his playing time, and the arrival of younger talents at his position, left him as an afterthought.
The 27-year-old guard, who was suspended for the season opener after reportedly getting into an argument with Spoelstra, has yet to play this season. In addition to his two suspensions, Waiters was fined by Miami last season for publicly expressing frustration over his minutes. Meanwhile, the Heat is off to a 6-3 start thanks to quality contributions from new franchise player Jimmy Butler and promising rookies Tyler Herro and Kendrick Nunn. It doesn’t need Waiters, now or in the future.
Miami would trade Waiters in a heartbeat, but that’s easier said than done. He has posted a below-average player efficiency rating in each of his seven seasons; he has missed 126 games over the past three years; he is a shoot-first guard who is a career 41 percent shooter; and he is on the books for a combined $24 million this season and next. Of course, his plane misbehavior just tanked his market value even further.
Back in the rosier days of 2017, Waiters penned an illuminating essay for the Players’ Tribune about his tragic upbringing and signature self-confidence. The South Philadelphia native explained that both of his parents had been shot by the time he was 12 years old and that many of his family members and friends had been killed.
“Because of everything I’d seen and lost, I decided from a young age: You know what? I’m just gonna [expletive] ball out,” Waiters wrote. “I just willed myself to be a legend on the Philly playgrounds.”
That’s the most unsettling aspect of this episode: His career is at a crossroads, and there is no resolution in sight. Waiters has laid out his deep-seated need to play and to score. The Heat has discovered a winning formula that doesn’t involve him, and it will struggle to move him.
A stubborn, proud player is staring down a stubborn, proud organization that just threw the book at him. If no one blinks, isn’t an untenable situation bound to get worse?