The Lakers appear to be continuing to look at the ghosts of LeBron James’s past as they decide how to best utilize their final roster spot before the playoffs begin. Los Angeles worked out swingman Dion Waiters this week, who then also met with the front office to discuss his departure from Miami, according to The Athletic’s Shams Charania. Waiters, who spent 30 games as James’s teammate during the latter’s second stint in Cleveland, appeared in three games for the Heat this season, before being traded to Memphis, where he was unceremoniously waived.
If this already feels a little bit like deja vu, it’s because the Lakers have also been linked to a different gunner from yesteryear, J.R. Smith. While Waiters hasn’t exactly been a nightly presence on the court over the last couple seasons (injuries and a rocky relationship with the Heat have kept him off the floor), he has seen action much more recently than Smith. And still only 28 years old, unlike so many veteran buyout guys in this situation, Waiters arguably—arguably!—still has some of his best basketball ahead of him. Which means he could certainly end up being a worthwhile signing for the Lakers.
Look, before diving into Dion, it’s worth discussing what a buyout guy can really do. 99 times out of 100, they aren’t going to turn the tide. The Lakers have been the No. 1 seed in the West practically all season long. They are a very good team. Someone who they sign off the street now probably isn’t going to play in the last four minutes of a Game 7 for them. The Lakers are a title contender no matter who they sign between now and the playoffs, and adding a buyout vet isn’t going to dramatically change their outlook one way or another.
So why someone like Waiters? He’s basically a higher-ceiling version of Smith. Dion can catch fire from the outside for a few minutes. He can guard a few positions against bench lineups. And while he’s not a backup point guard, Waiters can run pick-and-rolls or initiate some drive-and-kick actions that you wouldn’t really ask J.R. to do at this point in his career. Last year, in 44 games, Waiters shot 37.7% from three. He’s a career 35% shooter from outside, and while he’s not the best finisher, he is adept at collapsing the defense when he barrels into the paint.
Los Angeles could use that kind of spark, particularly in lineups that feature Anthony Davis while LeBron is on the bench. The Lakers actually have a negative-2.4 net rating in 541 minutes with AD on the floor and Bron off, posting a 105.1 offensive rating in that time. Adding another pick-and-roll partner for Davis or someone else who can create their own shot could help inject some life into those numbers, even if it’s only for a few minutes a night.
Waiters wouldn’t need to be the offensive fulcrum of bench lineups. He could always partner with someone like Davis or even Kyle Kuzma. Playing him in short bursts could help curb his worst tendencies, and carving out a small, incredibly well-defined role should help him thrive. (And there is some precedence for this, like when Waiters was in Oklahoma City, where many still remember him fondly. But that was four years ago.)
The questions with Waiters will come down to trust. Can he earn the trust of his veteran teammates? Would LeBron trust him more than J.R.? Can the front office trust him not to cause any incidents? Those are fair questions. I don’t think Waiters was a bad teammate in Miami. But he was desperate for a certain role with the Heat, and when injuries set him back, he didn’t respond in the best way. It’s on him to prove he can sacrifice for the greater good with the Lakers, and that may be more appealing to Waiters now considering where his career has gone and the superstars already in place in L.A.
Ultimately, a motivated, healthy version of Waiters can absolutely help the Lakers, and probably help them more than Smith. L.A. has the infrastructure in place to take on a personality like his, and Frank Vogel probably won’t be asking anybody signed at this point to play a huge role, anyway. As long as the Lakers are looking at free-shooting, swingman types to fill out their roster, Waiters makes as much sense—if not more—than anyone else available.