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Evaluating what Dion Waiters was and will be on the new-look Cavaliers

Dion Waiters, the presumed starting guard of the new look Cleveland Cavaliers, is set for a make it or break it year.

David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

Dion Waiters is, by the virtue of how he plays basketball and tweets, an athlete that people have strong opinions about with very little grey area. From a basketball standpoint, opinions on Waiters fall into two distinctly different camps. The pro-Waiters camp sees Waiters as a player with high defensive upside, improving shot selection and a variety of useful skills that, in the right context, can be useful for a good team. The anti-Waiters camp sees Waiters as more J.R. Smith than Lance Stephenson, a burgeoning inefficient chucker who is a lazy on defense and has too high a usage rate to be effective on a good team.

The problem is that the reality of what Waiters is might be is that he actually falls somewhere in the middle of both camps. For his career, Waiters has shown flashes of being an effective two-way player. For instance, take the Indiana Pacers game from early January Waiters, coming off the bench, took the lead of the Cavaliers offense late in the game with Kyrie Irving out with injury. He didn't start the game out strong and finished 6-17 from the field, but he shined in the fourth quarter.

Serving as both the primary ball handler and lead scoring option, Waiters brought the Cavaliers back from an 11 point deficit at the beginning of the quarter. His first two plays, a turnover and a missed 3-pointer, weren't good. But from there, Waiters got on a roll. With 8:18 left in the game, Waiters hit a 3-pointer and proceeded to score nine more points by the end of the period. The Cavaliers ultimately lost by four, but this was the good Waiters. He scored efficiently, didn't force any shots and, perhaps shaking the most common criticism of his game, filled the role the team need in that moment.

Of course, Waiters also did this later in the season against the Brooklyn Nets. And yes, he dribbled into this shot.



This is representative of bad Waiters. On that play, Waiters had two options to pass the ball off to either Jarrett Jack or Anthony Bennett. Neither pass would have resulted in an easy bucket, but that's better than a quasi turnover in a loss against a team the Cavaliers had previously had success against.

Overall, last year, Waiters' shot chart from Nylon Calculus illustrates that it's not correct to define him one way or the other, as inefficient or ineffective.


Waiters is all over the place here. Three of his above average FG% spots - the left elbow, the left wing and the right wing - are spots where Waiters would pull-up regularly. His well-below average shot chart near the rim makes sense as well, as Waiters often struggled to get clean looks at the rim at season. Of course, when he did get the necessary space, Waiters finished with emphasis.

To muddle this even further, Waiters' points per possession (PPS) chart paints a slightly different picture. In particular, this chart paints a better picture of his ability to finish inside. Here, Waiters is closer to league average near the rim while relatively similar to his FG% chart in other spots.


The positive takeaway here is that Waiters improved in both areas from his rookie season. While the progress wasn't always clear, Waiters was a better and more efficient player last season than he was as a rookie. This is especially important because Waiters improved in the context of playing in Mike Brown's stagnant offense, while also being paired with two other ball-dominant guards with similar skill sets.

The other problem here is that what Waiters has been so far might not matter so much. In the course of an offseason, the Cavaliers changed their roster entirely. Gone are Jarrett Jack, Anthony Bennett and others. In come LeBron James, Kevin Love, Mike Miller and Shawn Marion. With a few moves, Waiters has gone from being the Cavs' second or third best player to their fifth or sixth.

This, in theory, should only help Waiters. In general, the Cavaliers last season were a poor scoring team in the restricted area. That was in part due the Cavaliers having a lack of a low post threat and shooters. The Spencer Hawes deal mid-season sort of lessened those problems, but it didn't solve them. For example:


Here Waiters comes off a screen set by Tristan Thompson. He goes hard to his left, away from Hawes and Irving and towards Alonzo Gee. The Nets are actively looking trying to trap pressure Waiters and ideally force him to force to the ball into Thompson's hands.


Waiters, however, gets around the screen and takes the ball into the middle of the lane. But now Waiters ends up with room to operate in the paint, but Irving and Hawes are still out of passing range. As a result, Waiters shoots a fall away jumper over Andrei Kirlenko that isn't ideal, but he only had a few seconds left on the shot clock and Gee was his only safety valve. He did, however, make the shot.


Ideally, this won't be a situation that Waiters finds himself in too often next season. With Miller and Love on the roster, the Cavs should have enough shooters to give Waiters multiple safety valves if he attacks the interior of the opposing defense. There's also a chance Waiters will become a spot-up shooter himself if Irving and/or James are also on the floor. And last season, with a roster lacking quality decision makers, Waiters scored 1.14 points per possession on spot-ups per Synergy Sports.

For all the talk that Waiters is best with the ball in his hands, he is actually more than capable of quickly pulling up for jumpers in the flow of the game. Take this a sequence from a game against the Orlando Magic example.

Kyrie Irving brings the ball up across half court and initiates the offense. He is immediately pressed by the Orlando defense, which is clearly looking and leaning towards Irving to force the ball out of his hands. Irving, blowing past his man after Thompson sets a screen, easily gets onto the paint. Orlando's defense collapses around Irving, which leaves Waiters wide open on the wing.


Waiters, recognizing the situation pulls up immediately when Irving dishes him the ball. And perhaps most importantly, he does so quickly as his man collapses onto him. This is an ideal situation for a spot-up shooter. Waiters had the space to get off his shot without any significant defense and thus could take his shot in rhythm.


Waiters should get a lot of these looks in the upcoming season. Both Irving and James are excellent at driving and dishing. And as James and Irving are both better passers and ball handlers than Waiters, he's only going to be asked to be the primarily ball handler in limited circumstances. For example, if Waiters shares the backcourt with Matthew Dellavedova and Mike Miller or Shawn Marion is at the three, he'll clearly be the guy bringing up the ball. Dellavedova struggled to bring the ball up the floor in Summer League after all.

With Love and Miller likely to draw more attention than Waiters, he should get a lot of clean looks in the flow of the Cavs' offense next season. It's not unreasonable that Waiters' shooting numbers go up across the board next season, provided he cuts out the inefficient shots right inside the 3-point line. He also should have increased opportunities next season to drive into the lane with space the Cavs' new shooters will create. As for Waiters' defensive abilities, most anything is possible. He's not ever going to become a team's best defender, but there's a realistic chance that Waiters can develop into a guy who can defend both ones and twos and let the Cavaliers get funky with their defense looks.

Let's say Waiters can defend ones and he's in game during crunch time with Irving, James, Love and Anderson Varejao and the Cavaliers are playing the Chicago Bulls, who are using a lineup of Derrick Rose, Kirk Hinrich, Mike Dunleavy, Pau Gasol and Joakim Noah. Love takes Gasol, Varejao tussles with Noah and LeBron takes Dunleavy. Hinrich should be Irving's, as he's a very limited offensive threat, and this leave Waiters to guard Rose with the defensive shaded to help him if a pick comes or Rose gets by him.

Waiters, in theory, is a little stronger than Irving and can muscle Rose more than Irving can. Over the course of their NBA careers, Waiters has also been the better defender. Per Synergy Sports, both Irving and Waiters have given up 0.91 points per possession in their NBA careers, but Waiters is also holding players to 38.7 percent shooting from the field, while Irving is at 40.2 percent. Waiters is also holding players to lower shooting percentages and points per possession in both isolation (35.7 percent 38.3 percent, vs. 0.79 PPP vs. 0.9 PPP) and defending pick & roll ball handlers (32.3 percent vs. 40.3 percent, 0.68 PPP vs. 0.76 PPP).

In defending the pick and roll, Waiters has some good and bad tendencies. The bad is that once he's been beat by his man, he tends to trail off a bit at the end and just give up the bucket. But when he's engaged and actively looking to create some chaos, he's a more than adequate pick & roll defender. For example:


As the Bucks looks to set Waiters up for a pick, his can see it coming and angles his foot to ideally get past the pick without having to make contact with Ekpe Udoh.


He does just that and then comes up behind Brandon Knight, who thinks he has cleanly entered the lane. Instead, Waiters pokes the ball loose, causing him and Knight to jostle for it in the open floor. Ultimately, Waiters gets control of the ball and finishes on the other end for two easy points.

Overall, Waiters has the ability to defend a variety of looks. He has struggled with spot-ups thus far in his career (giving up 1.05 PPP per Synergy Sports), but that's a number that should improve with a better overall team defense. With James and Marion in place, as well as Miller, it shouldn't be too long before Waiters has a better understanding of where to place himself on the floor when his man doesn't have the ball.

Here, defending Jeff Green of the Boston Celtics, Waiters correctly comes over in help side defense and is the only man in the paint. The problem, however, is that Waiters has created too much space between Green and himself and thus will have a hard time recovering if the ball is swung Green's way. Of course, Thompson not being back in position puts Waiters in Catch-22 situation.


And of course, Green ends up in the ball and while Waiters does his best to close out, Green gets a clean shot off and it's too late for Waiters to actually alter his shot. As you can see, Green is already beginning his motion before Waiters has even started closing out.


But again, we don't have reason to think that this won't improve with a better team structure in place this season. And that goes for most of everything Waiters will be asked to do. It may take a small adjust period for him to get comfortable playing more off the ball, but that goes for Love and Irving as well to a much lesser extent. In theory, Waiters getting his touches more in the flow of the offensive instead of on his own whims will, or at least should, make him more efficient.

By mid-season, it's not unrealistic to expect that Waiters has adjusted his team and tuned it to perfectly fit the new look Cavaliers. Ideally, he'll do a little bit of everything - bring up the ball on bench units, distribute, spot up, defend other points guards, etc. - while also having stretches where he can create his own shot. If he does end up starting, Waiters will have to adjust to this role almost immediately with James and Irving primarily initiating the offense.

His minutes with Irving could be staggered as well and the more he can play with Love, Miller and Dellavedova (i.e. shooters) early on the easier the adjustment should be. With his ability to score and dish, plus defensive upside, Waiters could be a better shooting, but worse defending, version of what Stephenson was for Indiana last season -  provided the necessary growth comes when the opportunities present themselves