Should Luol Deng's Arrival Bring Dion Waiters Back to Starting Lineup?

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Should Luol Deng's Arrival Bring Dion Waiters Back to Starting Lineup?
Melissa Majchrzak/Getty Images

With the Cleveland Cavaliers' acquisition of small forward Luol Deng from the Chicago Bulls, the team finally addressed its most glaring position of need. 

His veteran leadership, defense, shooting and versatility can bring cohesion to any unit, which may allow head coach Mike Brown to revisit rotation possibilities—such as returning Dion Waiters to the starting lineup.

Wait, what? Dion Waiters? The player who has flourished as an offensive spark plug off the bench? The player who inadvertently freed C.J. Miles, currently the hottest shooting player for the Cavs? The player who allegedly dislikes playing alongside Kyrie Irving and Tristan Thompson? You want that guy back in as a starter?

The short answer: Yes, and here's why.

 

What Deng Does (and Doesn't) Bring to the Table

Melissa Majchrzak/Getty Images

Although Deng's resume speaks volumes about the quality of play he brings, the perception of his ability this season is a bit farther along than what the reality presents.

On his career, he's averaging 16.1 points, 6.4 rebounds and 2.5 assists. He's garnered All-Star bids in the past two seasons and even snagged a rare selection on the 2012 All-Defensive Second Team, which is more than any current member of the Cleveland roster can bolster.

In just two games in a Cleveland jersey, Deng has established himself as arguably the team's second-most valuable player—someone who can stay close to his man, get his own shot off and provide excellent spacing for his teammates.

Plus, with all due respect to Anthony Bennett, Earl Clark and Alonzo Gee, Deng was better than all three players combined, at least with regard to player efficiency rating (PER). And unlike Andrew Bynum, who functioned as a 7-foot black hole on the floor, Deng doesn't need the offense to run through him—especially now that he's playing alongside a healthy ball-handler.

Still, there is room for improvement, at least as far as boosting his fit within the Cavs roster. Although Deng's making 81.3 percent of his free throws, he hasn't found as much success behind the three-point arc or as a general spot-up shooter. Per SynergySports (subscription required), 18.2 percent of Deng's offense has come from spot-ups, despite only shooting 33.8 percent in these situations.

NBA.com/Stats

By contrast, he's actually a much more elite offensive player moving without the ball and scoring off screens, cuts and handoffs. His debut with the Cavaliers vs. the Utah Jazz provided the perfect glimpse of this, as he routinely set himself up in the corner to open the floor for Irving and/or Waiters, before inevitably running defender Richard Jefferson up and around the baseline and back screens to get open.

 

How Waiters Fits

Let me preface this by saying I'm all for Waiters continuing to lead the backup unit. It's hard to argue against someone who's leading the Eastern Conference in reserve scoring since being bumped down, and as far as I can see, it doesn't look like Mike Brown has any objections to Waiters assuming a permanent role off the bench.

With that said, it's become increasingly apparent that Waiters has more than enough talent to start, and for him to further develop as both an offensive and defensive player, learning to play alongside someone of Deng's caliber on the floor would be an immense step in the right direction.

More than anything, perhaps the singular trait that made the former Bull one of coach Tom Thibodeau's favorite players was that Deng never took a night off.

Playing within an immensely demanding defensive scheme, Deng routinely played nearly 40 minutes every night, defending the most talented position within the league, while getting his own production within the flow of a functional offense. Waiters needs to be exposed to that type of full-on intensity, and not just in practice or in staggered lineups.

Melissa Majchrzak/Getty Images

Waiters has all the tools in the world required to take that mythical leap forward in his development. While the bench would likely suffer from a short-term shortage in raw production, having Waiters play minutes alongside Jarrett Jack outside of the Cavs' signature three-guard lineups is redundant.

Speaking of which, promoting Waiters should allow the team to see what Jack is truly made of. With a second unit to be manned exclusively by him, and with a reliable shooter in Miles accompanying him, it'd be time for him to seriously step it up and earn his contract—lest the value on his contract irreversibly start circling the drain.

 

Other Options

On the other hand, it's not like the Cavaliers' current rotation isn't sound, and I imagine Coach Brown—with the season quickly approaching its halfway mark—would be hesitant to endorse another roster shakeup. With Miles, Thompson and Anderson Varejao in place, the paint and driving lanes all but belong to Irving alone, with capable shooters at all positions for his assisting disposal.

Waiters would continue his exemplary play where he is, and the three-guard lineup could continue to thrive as an offensive nuance against mixed- or full-secondary units, defense be damned.

But, at some point, it's going to be inevitable that Irving and Waiters come to terms with functioning alongside one another. The only way one ball hog learns to embrace team play and unlearn old habits is to develop trust in, and understanding of, his teammate's game.

Having Irving, with his resurgent shooting hand, playing off the ball would only add an offensive dimension that the Cavs need to open first quarters.

And vice versa, Waiters' game would become thrice as deadly if he can master the art of slashing and cutting with the type of savvy timing that someone like Deng could display and teach in real time.

This doesn't have to be some Dueling Banjos-level conundrum, at least not with Deng in town. Two normally ball-dominant guards learning to coexist, as difficult as it may seem, could be the final cog that uplifts a Cleveland squad whose struggles in both offense and ball/player movement aren't just going to disappear simply via a trade.

 

Unless otherwise noted, all stats provided by NBA.com and are current through Sunday, Jan. 12.

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