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Dion Waiters progress in his second season: an email discussion

I thought it was time to check in with resident Dion-ologist, eraulli, and see what he thinks of Dion Waiters second season.


The Cleveland Cavaliers' selection of Dion Waiters in 2012 was mildly shocking. Almost two seasons of Waiters have left perhaps more questions than answers. I don't think anyone knows how good he is, or how good he could be. He's a talented guy. I thought I would check in with eraulli (Alex), a Syracuse and Cavs fan that has followed Waiters for some time, to see what he thinks about Dion's second season in the league.

We started this email chain on February 13th. As you will see from the dates on the emails, this is entirely my fault. Unfortunately for the Cavaliers, but fortunately for this blog post, Waiters hasn't played much since.

David (2/13): Hey Alex, it has been too long. It's been a pretty turbulent year for the Cavaliers and Dion Waiters has been no exception. Things appear to be on the up and up. So the first thing I'd ask you is pretty simple: As a Syracuse fan that loved Waiters there, and has followed him for a year and half, are you still as high on him as you were during his sophomore season there? What has been the most encouraging thing you have seen in his play this year? What, if anything, has you worried?

Alex (2/14): It definitely has been a rough year for the Cavs. The last few games have been a nice surprise, though, so my optimism is temporarily restored. I have to say, though, that before this 4 game win streak I was becoming quite convinced that it wasn't going to work out with Dion on the Cavs. I fully expected him to be traded before the deadline.

Now, Chris Grant is gone, players are actually putting forth effort, and everybody is friends again, apparently. How this happened, or if it will stay this way, I have no clue. But it has given me hope that it may yet work out between Dion and the Cavs.

But in response to your questions:

As a Syracuse fan that loved Waiters there, and has followed him for a year and half, are you still as high on him as you were during his sophomore season there?

I'm still a big fan of Dion, and I think he has the talent to be a really special player. I'm uncertain if he will ever realize his potential, but as I see it there are currently two  things standing in his way. One problem is something he needs to fix, and one is up to the front office and coaching staff. Which leads us to your next set of questions:

What has been the most encouraging thing you have seen in his play this year? What, if anything, has you worried? 

I'm going to tackle the second part of this first, what I'm concerned about.

One of the things I like about Dion is that he wears his emotions on his sleeve as he plays the game. When things are going well (such as in his second year at Syracuse) I truly believe this to be an asset to the team. However, in a less ideal situation it can definitely become an issue.

While I like Dion, he is very much still learning how to be a professional. When he's frustrated he allows it to affect how much effort he puts forth on the court and how he treats his teammates, which is disappointing even if not completely unexpected. I found some interesting numbers that show how his effort, or lack thereof, is having a big impact on the team.

The other thing that concerns me is how he fits on this team. While there is a lot of talk about the Kyrie-Dion dynamic, I don't think that's real issue here. If there are two key players that really lack synergy on the court, I think it's Dion & Tristan Thompson. That pairing simply isn't working right now, and I've got the data to prove it :-)

On the other hand, Dion has made some significant strides this season. Check out this shot-chart from last year:

There's plenty of red, some yellow, and very little green. Not so good. What about this year?

Lots of green and yellow, and not too much red. Big improvement, especially in the mid-range and 3-point zones. Dion's jump shooting has improved considerably, and I have reason to believe that it can actually get better.

So, what do you think of Dion's attitude this year? What impact have you noticed on the team, and what are you looking for in this regard moving forward?

David (2/27): Lots of good thoughts there, and I apologize for it taking me awhile to get back to you. These numbers you mention about Waiters' effort and numbers with Tristan are intriguing ...

It's hard to discuss Dion's attitude throughout the year in a vacuum. What I mean by that is: there have been so many Cavaliers who have had inconsistent effort, or who have had reports of being problems in the locker room, that if I just talk about Waiters it feels like I am singling him out. I think Waiters has probably had attitude issues this season. I think a few Cavs have had that problem. Part of the issue is that we end up having to play armchair psychologists, which is never really good.

Here is my educated guess, though. I think Dion Waiters lives with a chip on his shoulder. He plays with a chip on his shoulder, but it isn't just a function of his playing style. It's who he is. Everything in the media and on the court has come easy for Kyrie Irving (until this year, I think). Waiters, though, has now been benched both of his first two years in the league. Kyrie Irving doesn't play defense (or at least it's perceived that way) and he gets to keep playing. Dion Waiters doesn't play defense, and he gets benched. Now, Waiters doesn't come close to providing the offensive value Irving does. And I don't think Waiters has defended as well as Irving has. So it's apples to oranges. But not only do I understand why Waiters wouldn't get that, I don't want him to get that. I want Waiters to see himself as an offensive dynamo.

Things seemed to have been getting better prior to Dion's injury. He has been back on twitter, smiling and hanging out with Irving, and his play was better too. More importantly, Mike Brown has talked often about how certain Cavaliers let their tough offensive nights affect their defensive performance. For most of the year, this applied to Dion more than anyone to my eyes. Whether it was slow or non-existent transition defense, or losing focus, it was a struggle. Heading into the All-Star break though, it seemed like Dion was comfortable being a distributor and staying focused defensively even when shots weren't falling. I was enjoying that.

I will give you the last word to respond to this, and why don't you go into some detail about the Tristan Thompson fit issue you mentioned, and how Spencer Hawes might help fix that a little bit?

Alex (2/28): Good stuff, David. Before I get into the fit with Tristan, I just want to share some research I did regarding Dion's effort and how it affects the team's play statistically.
I was wondering if there was any way for this to be measured, and I came up with this formula:

Rebounds + Assists + Steals + Blocks - Turnovers - Fouls = Effort score

Each of these statistics are connected with the effort a player puts forth or the choices he makes while on the court (i.e. trying to force your own shot vs. setting up a teammate). Here are the results:

When Dion's effort score is zero or negative, the team has a 4-16 record with a -9.6 average scoring margin.

When Dion's effort score is between +1 and +4, the team has a 4-12 record with a -5.9 average scoring margin.

When Dion's effort score is +5 or greater, the team has an 11-2 record with a +5.1 average scoring margin.

It is interesting, too, that Dion's average points and shooting percentages have actually been worse in the Cavalier's wins as opposed to their losses. Clearly, these peripheral stats are affecting the team's results more than his scoring rate or efficiency.

Now, on to the questionable fit with Tristan. Here's the short version (just for you TL:DR Kyrie_Swirving!):

2013-14 shooting splits w/ Tristan on the court: 39.5 / 34.4 / 59.7

2013-14 shooting splits w/ Tristan off the court: 46.0 / 39.3 / 74.7

The question is, why is this happening? Here's a breakdown of Dion's shooting efficiency and shot selection with Tristan on and off the court:

Tristan On

Field Goals Made

Field Goals Attempted

% Made

% of Shot Attempts

Restricted Area





Paint - Non RA










Corner 3’s





Above Break 3’s





Tristan Off

Field Goals Made

Field Goals Attempted

% Made

% of Shot Attempts

Restricted Area





Paint - Non RA










Corner 3’s





Above Break 3’s





Some important points:

1) When Tristan is on the court, Dion takes more mid-range jumpers and less shots at the rim.

2) As a result, Dion's efficiency on mid-range shots is very bad with Tristan on the court (and really good with him off the court!).

3) Dion has also been significantly more efficient on above the break 3's with Tristan off the court. Possibly because he's more of a threat to take it to the rim? Or possibly just noise, I'm really not sure.

4) Dion has been much more efficient on corner 3's with Tristan *on* the court. Very small sample size, and likely just noise, but worth keeping an eye on. Perhaps he should heading to that spot more often when they share the court.

Here's my interpretation of all this data:

Dion has an elite first step. He can get to the rim pretty much anytime he choses to. The threat of this allows him to create space for himself on the perimeter. However, this only works when the player guarding him is actually worried about him getting to the rim. If he knows there will be 1-2 bigs there to meet him every time he tries then he might be more willing to concede that and focus on not giving up a good jump shot.

Basically, Dion needs space to operate effectively. When he's given this space he really is capable of being the offensive dynamo that he already believes he is. Unfortunately, Tristan doesn't provide any space by himself. For a Dion-Tristan pairing to ever work we would need a center with legitimate 3-point range.

This brings me to the Spencer Hawes trade (which happened after we started this email exchange!). As we know, Hawes is an excellent above the break 3-point shooter. He might be just what we need to make the Dion-Tristan pairing work much more efficiently. Once Dion is healthy, we really need to get the Dion-Tristan-Hawes trio as many minutes as possible. This will help us determine if Dion and Tristan will ever be able to work together, and if Hawes is worth signing to a long-term deal.

To wrap this up, I just wanted to touch once more on Dion's progress this year and long-term potential. Looking at Dion's shot-charts earlier, we've seen that he's shown significant progress as a jump shooter. Those numbers get even better when Tristan has been off the court, giving him more space to operate. Heading in to the year, this was probably one of the biggest concerns with Dion's game. Looking forward, what potential do see for Dion if this progress continues?

David (3/3): Some really interesting stuff there Alex. I think one of the most disappointing things about the Chris Grant era was, okay, we lost a lot of games and have Kyrie Irving, Tristan Thompson, and Dion Waiters to show for it - and there was never an effort to put together a roster that made sense for any of them. It isn't right that Irving and Waiters don't have a pick and roll or pick and pop option. It isn't right that Thompson's skills overlap with Anderson Varejao's. At a certain point, if you want your picks to work you need to put them in a position to succeed.

I think Waiters, Irving and Thompson can all fit together, but it requires certain skills from the other two guys on the court. Namely, you want them to be able to shoot. That's why Spencer Hawes appears to be working out so well in Cleveland. You already see good results from Thompson and Irving, and I really want Waiters back out there to see what we have.

What can Dion be? I still have no clue. I spend a lot of time wanting him to play like Delonte West. If this feels like an insult to Waiters, it shouldn't. The numbers with and without Thompson are interesting to me because I had kind of been getting to the point where I wanted Waiters to phase out the driving. He isn't drawing enough fouls, and when he gets too deep in penetration it's often hard for him to get back on defense. But with more spacing, taking into account his still young age, it would probably be wise for me to give him more time.

Thanks a lot Alex, and hopefully we can do this again after the season, hopefully with a 15 game sample of Waiters and Hawes playing together to over analyze.