Embedded within Dion Waiters' game is the hint of a helpful basketball player. His skill level is obvious. Waiters has the faculties to beat even high-level NBA athletes off the dribble – a talent that categorically drives many of the league's best offenses. There is a power and fearlessness to his game that could allow for regular, repeat trips to the free throw line. He can pass when he chooses to make it a priority, and he can shoot well when he doesn't unnecessarily inflate the degree of difficulty.
The problem is that most indicators of his actual performance tell a different story. The scoring is there for Waiters. But so are the horrid decisions and attempts to hijack the offense, the vacations from defense and displays of entitlement. These are the underlying reasons why Cleveland parted ways with Waiters in Monday's three-team trade. The qualities previously mentioned are how he now finds himself in Oklahoma City, positioned for a career reset.
Immediately, the Thunder have one significant advantage in managing Waiters that the Cavs did not: They needn't rely on him. An OKC team without Waiters is fearsome all the same. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are a sure thing for high efficiency on offense, and even while fighting through persistent injury the Thunder have posted a top-10 mark on defense. They aren't a perfect team, but Scott Brooks also has more capable, interesting players strewn throughout his roster than did David Blatt. No other Cavalier reserve but Waiters could create for themselves when asked -- a distinction that made the third-year guard a rotational necessity.
Blatt could really only afford to suppress Waiters' touches or minutes on Mike Miller's hottest shooting nights. Brooks will have proper alternatives, if not something of a minutes crunch. Along with Durant, Oklahoma City draws rotation minutes from Andre Roberson, Reggie Jackson, Anthony Morrow and Perry Jones on the wing. All of the above can offer something (defense, stability, shooting, and length, respectively) that Waiters cannot, and in that leverage the Thunder find room to work with the 23-year-old guard. Those efforts center around what Waiters does on the court, but OKC – a franchise as mindful of culture as any in the league – begins the process of selling Waiters on his new role more subtly.
"We’re gonna make him feel wanted," Kevin Durant said via The Oklahoman. "I don’t think he felt that the last couple years. He’s gonna fit in well. He’s gonna get comfortable real quick. It’s on the leaders -- Russell, myself, Nick [Collison] -- to make him feel at home and feel special and let him play his game.”
He could be integrated slowly if the team sees fit, which might make sense given there's no obvious opening for minutes. It also would allow Oklahoma City to establish that Waiters won't play much unless he plays by their rules. That isn't as oppressive as it might sound. The Thunder offense, after all, is predicated on the idea of operational freedom. Westbrook and Jackson have room to operate and attack in ways that other guards don't, provided that they play hard and commit to team principles. Waiters could find the same. Attempting to mold Waiters into something he's not (an idea Cleveland toyed with in making him more of a spot-up type) mutes what he does best. He needs room to operate and the opportunity to make mistakes. He also needs guidance, and Brooks has proven effective in steering guards of just this type.
Should the Thunder find a balance with Waiters that the Cavs couldn't, they'll wind up with an aggressive perimeter creator at a relatively meager cost. The price of Waiters' acquisition was a protected first-round pick and Lance Thomas, a vestige of OKC's injury-shaken rotation. The pick will likely convey this year in the 19-21 range, though in the event that the Thunder wind up at 18 or lower it will be protected and deferred (with top-15 protection in 2016 and 2017 and conveyance as two second-round picks thereafter). In that, the Thunder have leveraged their injuries and higher-than-usual draft pick to acquire clear talent at the immediate expense of only Thomas.
None of this, though, makes Waiters any less curious a fit. His arrival continues the reinvention of the Thunder supporting cast from a group of non-scorers who support Durant and Westbrook to a complement of players who need the ball in their hands. Waiters and Jackson are both needy for touches on offense on a team dominated by two of the league's highest-usage superstars. Their collective ability to improvise and initiate make the Thunder a more unpredictable cover, if also a peculiar collaboration.
That mix of scorers will need minding over the course of the season. Waiters cannot be allowed to proceed in his default set of indiscriminate chucking and sulking. At the same time, Waiters is not a player worth acquiring without making some room for his creative endeavors. Jackson, in particular, will need to sacrifice – a lot to ask of a player in a contract year now sharing a backcourt with his insurance policy.
The structure of this deal itself, though, makes clear that the Thunder are serious about making things work with Waiters. Although Thomas and a pick were sent out in the deal, Waiters was technically absorbed into the roster using a trade exception – a device which allowed OKC to take on significantly more salary than it sent out. As a result, the Thunder have now moved into luxury tax territory for the first time in their history.
This was not a decision made lightly. It was a calculated gamble grounded in deserved organizational confidence. Acquiring Waiters is as much an expression of faith in the player as in the franchise itself.