When Victor Oladipo looks in the mirror, he still sees the former All-Star, former All-NBA player. His interviews reflect that perspective.
So, no, there has not been discourse about possibly emerging in this latest chapter of his career as a Sixth Man of the Year candidate.
But privately, there have been concessions. At least that is the perspective of Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra.
And that is what has made this latest return by the 30-year-old guard so encouraging.
“If you ask a former All-NBA player and former All-Star, regardless of what they’ve gone through, most, I would say 90 percent of them, would say, ‘No, way. Put me in a position to be who I was,’ ” Spoelstra said of Oladipo first embracing a Heat playmaking/defensive role, then settling in as sixth man. “He understood that this was going to take some time and be patient with this process.”
The Heat’s season began Oct. 19; Oladipo’s season began Dec. 6, after battling preseason knee pain, the latest in a series of injuries and setbacks the past five seasons.
“Ultimately, it would be about delayed gratification and to build it up in a healthy way,” Spoelstra said, with the Heat opening a three-game trip Monday against the Atlanta Hawks. “And he hasn’t skipped any steps. He’s built up his body. He’s taken every role and then conquered that role to get to the next one, and he’s been a great boost for us.”
Initially, Spoelstra somewhat blinked, starting Oladipo in the Dec. 20 home loss to the Chicago Bulls. Otherwise, 18 appearances entering Monday, with 17 of those off the bench.
“It’s really important,” Spoelstra said of Oladipo thriving as a sixth man. “And it’s what we envisioned. At the start of training camp, that’s the role we slotted for him. We knew it’d be, from his resume, a sacrifice. But based on what his last four years would be, that this is what made the most sense. And we also wanted to be patient in the process with him. No matter how long it would take, we just saw the potential of that.
“And he’s just going to continue to get more comfortable, get his legs under him, understand what his role is. I’ve said it before, we’ve just really enjoyed being on the journey with him. Particularly when he’s had to overcome so much, it’s fun to see him have that joy for the game and his teammates, and have an impact on winning.”
The Heat thrived last season with Tyler Herro playing his way to 2022 NBA Sixth Man of the Year. This season, with Herro having graduated to the starting lineup, the opportunity was there for Oladipo to seize that role.
As a means of easing the No. 2 pick in the 2013 NBA Draft back into the flow, it has turned into a win-win proposition.
“Overall it’s beneficial,” Oladipo said. “When you’ve missed as much basketball as I have, the key to getting your rhythm and just the feeling back of just playing. So whatever opportunity I have to play, it’s beneficial for me.”
In recent weeks, with Herro missing time with a sore Achilles, with Kyle Lowry still out with knee soreness, there have been opportunities to again cast Oladipo as starter, as he was with the Orlando Magic, Oklahoma City Thunder, Indiana Pacers and Houston Rockets.
But even with Oladipo able to take another bite at the free-agency apple in the offseason, holding a $9.5 million Heat player option for next season, it has been a case of living in the moment, the sixth-man moment.
“He’s a major X-factor for our team,” Spoelstra said. “That’s what we had hoped for. That’s what we anticipated. Even if you go back two years ago, I thought that team had a chance to be really good, the year after the bubble, when we acquired him. And it was short lived. But you could tell, even in those four games, it was like, ‘OK, this looks different. This is going to help our team quite a bit.’
“And that’s what you’re seeing right here. He’s had the mental and emotional stability to let it happen at the right pace and happen organically.”