The living’s never easy on Waiters Island. It’s an eternal heat check, believing in Dion Waiters, and even the good times were magnificently chaotic. I don’t know what’s left of the small cult following he once had. Waiters, who has yet to play a game in 2019-20, was suspended for the third time this season on Thursday for “failure to adhere to team policies, violation of team rules, and continued insubordination.” For someone whose shtick is talking himself into relevancy, Waiters is easily forgotten on the sideline. When his voice goes, his enthusiasts go along with it. There are other, newer “irrational confidence guys,” just as dauntless and delusional as Waiters. After multiple suspensions and injuries the past couple of years, no one is checking for Waiters like they once were, not even Miami.
The Heat are the biggest pleasant surprise in the Eastern Conference this season. They’re 18-6, second in the conference, and are operating with a reinvigorated roster. The best offseason additions came at Waiters’s position, shooting guard. Jimmy Butler was acquired through a sign-and-trade; Miami drafted Tyler Herro out of Kentucky in the lottery and later signed Kendrick Nunn, who went undrafted. Herro is a rookie sensation; Nunn has started every game; Butler is an All-Star in his prime; Waiters had Gummy Gate. His inefficient shooting—which used to have some inexplicable enchantment behind it—has been replaced with shots that drop at a higher rate. Waiters once famously tweeted, “Men lie women lie BUCKETS DNT.” Hoist with his own petard.
The first suspension came before the season began. The Heat reprimanded Waiters for “conduct detrimental to the team,” and held him out of their first game against the Grizzlies. The front office never specified the reason for the suspension, possibly because it wasn’t an isolated incident: “There were a number of unacceptable incidents this week,” Pat Riley said in October, “culminating with his unprofessional conduct on the bench last night.” Waiters had argued with coach Erik Spoelstra during the preseason finale; speculation is a dangerous game, but this wasn’t the first time that Waiters had vocalized frustration about a lack of playing time, nor the first time he was suspended afterward.
Waiters’s second mishap was more serious and much less common. He was suspended 10 games without pay in November, again for “conduct detrimental to the team,” which allegedly boiled down to taking a weed gummy on the team charter and having a panic attack as a result. Stars, they’re just like us! Original reports said that Waiters had suffered a seizure, which was later disputed and is not included in the ESPN reports; either way, the league prohibits the use of THC. The incident resulted in many cringey, nerdy, and unsurprisingly uninformed headlines about Waiters “overdosing” on “gummies,” which isn’t a thing, and also resulted in his missing out on a $1.2 million contract bonus. At the time of the second suspension, Waiters would’ve needed to play in 70 of Miami’s 73 remaining games to receive the money.
Assuming that no new suspensions will follow this one, Waiters will return on December 27. Miami hasn’t released any specifics about the latest suspension; even without detail, it’s making him a distraction once again—his only contribution of the season. He’ll be set back another five games from the chance to prove he’s the best shooting guard on the team, the best shooting guard in the league, and the best shooting guard of all time. Being behind and remaining confident anyway is canon for Waiters, who told Sports Illustrated one year ago that he’s “better than a lot of these guys in the motherfucking league.” (In 2017, Waiters also called himself a top-five shooting guard, creating a list on The Herd With Colin Cowherd that excluded … Jimmy Butler.) Waiters was recovering from injury when he made each of those statements, having missing the final 13 games of the 2016-17 season before speaking to Cowherd that July, and rehabbing after left ankle surgery when he spoke to SI in 2018.
Sometimes it’s the lack of new and necessary skill sets that ages out a player; sometimes it’s new directions from the front office. It became clear last season that Waiters would need to return to his 2016-17 form to earn a spot in Spo’s backcourt, but the situation might have been more complicated than that even if Waiters had been healthy, compliant, and not high as hell 31,000 feet in the air. The influx of Butler, Herro, and Nunn—and let’s not forget Duncan Robinson and Chris Silva—has slimmed Waiters’s relevance even more than his own shenanigans. The argument that he’s most valuable to Miami as a trade chip is ruthless, but accurate, as is not believing teams would be all that interested at this point. Miami needs that one extra body to contend with the best of the Eastern Conference, and has the pieces to package together if the right offer—and willing recipient—comes along.
There’s always the promise of something more with Waiters, who has never played more than 46 games in a season in his three years with the Heat. He was instrumental in Miami’s “30-11” comeback in 2016-17, which will always be remembered as the year the rugged Heat went 11-30 in the first half of the season and 30-11 in the second. It earned Waiters a four-year, $52 million contract that offseason, which was immediately considered ludicrous by those who had been burned by him before. Since the signing, he’s been exactly the same: a player who believes he has superstar talent and deserves superstar rights without actually having that superstar talent. Relentless confidence is sometimes necessary for survival in the NBA, but feeling wronged over playing time or even the anticipation of having minutes cut is shortsighted, especially for a career “prove yourself” guy, and not an effective way to stand out among so much new talent. Waiters hasn’t played a minute this season, but he’s still pulling up in traffic.