Dion Waiters' offensive explosion helps turn Heat into one of NBA's best surprises

For the first time in his career, Dion Waiters is having prolonged success as a focal point on a playoff-caliber team.

One of the biggest surprises this season has been the play of Dion Waiters. While he has shown flashes of being an impact player in the past, this is the first time in his career he’s had prolonged success as a focal point on offense. His numbers are up across the board from 9.8 points, 2.6 rebounds and 2.0 assists per game last season to 15.8 points, 4.3 assists and 3.3 rebounds per game this season. His shooting numbers have also climbed from a dismal 39.9 percent from the field to a more respectable 42.3 percent.

The more respectable part is important. It’s not like Waiters has developed into an efficiency monster — 104players are shooting better from the field than him this season — but he’s gotten to a point where he’s a difference maker on a team in desperate need of a secondary playmaker. Take notice to how the Heat are averaging 106.5 points per 100 possession with him on the court, which is as good as the Hornets, Thunder and Pacers. Without him, their offense collapses to a Mavericks-like 103.9points per 100 possessions. (That difference could look more dramatic with the end of the regular season approaching as Waiters continues to sit out with an ankle injury. He has missed the Heat's last six games.)

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The primary reason for Waiters’ uptick in efficiency has been his shot selection. While he’s still shooting too many long 2-pointers for his own good, he’s spending more time at the basket and on the 3-point line. He’s developed great chemistry with Goran Dragic in particular by giving him a catch-and-shoot option when he forces defenses to collapse. 20.8 percent of Waiters’ offense this season comes from spot-up opportunities, where he averages 1.12 points per possession to rank in the 78.9percentile. For context, that’s a better mark than a number of sharpshooters including Danny Green, Trevor Ariza, Seth Curry and Lou Williams.

Waiters has been evenbetter if you isolate those numbers to just the last two months. Since Jan. 17, when the Heat won the first of 13 straight games, he’s shooting 47.6 percent on catch-and-shoot 3-pointers. That’s not far off of Stephen Curry’s success rate on the same shots last season (48.8 percent) when he broke his own 3-point record. Considering it has made up a quarter of Waiters’ offense during that time, his consistent shooting has become a huge weapon for Dragic and the Heat. It’s also a nice change of pace from Dwyane Wade, who attempted 16 catch-and-shoot 3-pointers as their shooting guard last season.

Waiters couples that with the ability to take defenders off the dribble. Only five players are currently averaging more drives per game: Isaiah Thomas, Dennis Schroder, John Wall, Russell Westbrook and Dragic. Waiters scores the least amount of points from drives out of that group, but he’s second to Dragic in passes per game. He leads that group in assists off drives as well with 1.4 per game while posting the second lowest turnover rate.

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The Heat have become incredibly reliant on both Waiters and Dragic to break teams down off the dribble. One stat unearthed by the Miami Herald makes it clear: Miami goes from shooting 45.2 percent from 3-point range when Waiters and Dragic are on the court to 33.5 percent when one of them (or both) is on the bench. The former would lead the NBA by a significant margin while the latter would be better than only fiveteams. Whether it’s in transition, isolation or the pick-and-roll, Waiters’ ability to get into the paint has created a lot of open looks for his teammates in the form of kickouts.

The following possession is perhaps the best example of how Dragic and Waiters play offeach other. Waiters gets a first shot atcreating a basket for himself out of the pick-and-roll with Hassan Whiteside, who is one of the best rollers in the NBA. When the Hawks crowd him outside the paint, he sets Dragic up for a drive to the basket by whipping the ball out to him on the perimeter. Dragic draws a second defender when he gets into the paint and finds Waiters in the corner, who then passes it to Luke Babbitt when Paul Millsap closes out on him.

That’s all of Waiters’ best qualities wrapped up in one possession. He comes off the pick-and-roll looking to score and kicks it out to Dragic when the defense collapses. He then makes himself available to Dragic by relocating to the corner, only to set Babbitt up with an open 3-pointer when the help defender switches onto him. He strikes the perfect balance between being aggressive within the flow of the offense while using his gravity to create a high quality look for the Heat.

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Speaking of the pick-and-roll, it’s where Waiters has scored the majority of his points in a Heat uniform. It makes up for 27.9 percent of his offense in total, and he ranks in the 33.0percentile with 0.72 points per possession. However, some of those numbers are skewed by the Heat’s slow start to the season. As FanRag’s Zach Harper pointed out, Waiters averaged 0.56 points per possession as a pick-and-roll scorer in the first half of the season. In the second half, that number has increased to 0.80 points per possession. The same goes for his improvements as a passer in the pick-and-roll: 0.80 points per possession in the first half compared to 0.98 points per possession in the second half.

With athletic big men like Whiteside and Willie Reed rolling hard to the basket and three shooters on the perimeter, teams have had a tough time slowing Waiters down when he gets a full head of steam attacking downhill. He’s not an elite finisher at the basket, but he still converts around half of his looks from there. He’s also a threat to pull-up from midrange having made 46.2 percent of such attempts since Jan. 17.

Waiters still relies on isolations to score a lot of his points — 21.7 percent of his offense in total — but he’s been a more efficient scorer in isolation than he has out of the pick-and-roll with 1.01 points per possession in the second half of the season. Even though he doesn’t set up players as much in isolation as he does in the pick-and-roll, his ability to create for himself has been a welcomeaddition to a team lacking playmakers. For example, Waiters created the game-winning 3-pointer out of isolation against the Warriors in January.

He then followed that up with an almost identical move two nights later against the Nets.

Plus, Waiters’ isolations are less of a detriment to the offense when he’s spending more time creating for others and spacing the floor at a high rate. It almost offsets the bad parts of his game. He’sbecome an elite shooter in Miami who has doubled his assist rate and lowered his turnover rate.

For someone who could be a free agent thisoffseason if he chooses to declinehis $3 million player option, it’s an encouraging sign for teamsinterested in offering him a long-term deal.

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