The Cleveland Cavaliers thought they had drafted their backcourt of the future.
Kyrie Irving landed as the top overall pick in 2011. Dion Waiters followed as the No. 4 selection a year later.
A pair of top-five picks should have taken care of Cleveland's guard spots for the next decade. Had they been invested correctly, maybe they could have.
But the Cavs bet too heavily on the best-player-available approach. They locked in on the individual pieces, never bothering to think about the big picture they had assembled.
There were basketball reasons lowering the ceiling of this duo. But those weren't nearly as damaging as the personality clashes that have since moved this combo to its deathbed.
The Cavs blew past the warning signs when they formed this ill-fated tandem. But even this short-sighted front office would have a hard time ignoring all of the flying red flags.
Clearly, the Cavs thought they struck gold with Irving. By all accounts, that's exactly what happened.
He steamrolled his way to the 2011-12 Rookie of the Year award with first-year averages of 18.5 points and 5.4 assists in 30.5 minutes a night. He was an All-Star by his second season and left perhaps the strongest impression on the hoops world of the entire weekend.
Irving was a gem. Borderline flawless it seemed, at least at the offensive end.
But Cleveland got greedy. After having so much success with a high-volume, ball-dominant scorer, it tried adding another to the mix a year later.
But the Cavs forgot to petition the league to add an extra basketball during game time. At least, I'm assuming that was the initial intent. How else did they plan on splitting touches between two black holes?
Both Irving and Waiters lose effectiveness when the ball is out of their hands. They're at their best when they're breaking down defenders on the perimeter and driving toward the basket.
Nearly half of Irving's shots (40.9 percent) have come inside the paint and another 32.6 percent have come from mid-range. Waiters has taken 37.9 percent of his looks from the paint and 38.1 percent from mid-range.
Hopefully, these numbers are setting off some alarm sirens at this point. Both players cannot have the same plan of attack at the offensive end. If each one is trying to collapse the defense, then who is responsible for holding defenders onto the perimeter?
Both have been good, not great, from distance (Waiters, 37.7 three-point percentage and Irving, 37.1). Of their combined 31.8 field-goal attempts per night, 23.7 come from inside the arc. They're pushing defenders back into the very same space they're attempting to attack.
There is no deception in this offense, no creativity to speak of. Just a reliance on two very similar players employing very similar strategies. When these two share the floor, their stat sheets suffer.
Irving's been an All-Star without Waiters and an over-hyped, volume scorer alongside him.
|Waiters' Effect on Irving's Per-48-Minute Production|
Waiters is a more efficient scorer and more effective playmaker when Irving's on the pine.
|Irving's Effect on Waiters' Per-48-Minute Production|
These were supposed to be the building blocks for the post-LeBron James Cavs. But how can they collectively support this franchise when they can't even help each other?
But it gets worse. Their on-court logistical problems aren't nearly as bad as their clashing personalities.
Too Many Egos
On the surface, having a pair of alpha dogs doesn't sound so bad.
After all, when one of those larger-than-life personalities is Kyrie Irving, there's bound to be some time when he's not available. In a perfect world, Waiters would fill that leadership void whenever Irving cannot.
Well, Cleveland's world isn't perfect. Since putting this pair together, the Cavs are 38-82.
The roster is too talented for the record to be this bad. Whenever that happens, the blame game is sure to follow.
This situation has been no exception.
ESPN The Magazine's Chris Broussard described a locker room divided earlier this season. Waiters used a players-only meeting as his chance to touch on all of the problems he saw in Cleveland, and needless to say, his teammates weren't thrilled with his word choice:
Irving called the meeting after the game, and every player spoke. When Waiters was given the floor, he criticized Thompson and Irving, accusing them of playing "buddy ball'' and often refusing to pass to him. Thompson took umbrage with Waiters' words and went back at him verbally. The two confronted each other, but teammates intervened before it could escalate into a fight.
The Cavs had to sense this boiling point was coming. They were the ones that initially turned on the burners.
The relationship was set up to fail. There were never going to be enough touches to keep everyone happy. The personalities were too big to find a collective voice in the locker room.
Winning was the only way to make this work. It's hard making it to the championship stage when you can't even get a ticket to the dance.
There is no way to manufacture chemistry. It exists or it doesn't—there is no gray area.
As Broussard said, there is nothing good going on behind closed doors with this franchise:
Waiters and Irving are not close. Waiters believes the Cavaliers have a double standard when it comes to Irving, sources said. Waiters feels that while Irving is allowed to get away with loafing defensively, making turnovers and taking bad shots, he is taken out of games for such things.
Maybe that explains why Waiters seems to live and die on every possession, a dramatic act that Jason Lloyd of the Akron Beacon Journal said on Monday is wearing thin on his teammates: "When Waiters’ shot is falling, he can carry a team. When it’s not, he tends to shut down. He doesn’t defend, he gets careless with the ball… Players have quietly grumbled about Waiters’ act off and on all season, and those grumbles were growing louder Sunday night."
Waiters wants to be a superstar. He thinks he has all of the necessary tools for the job. He wants every chance to realize the potential he sees in himself, the kind of chances that he thinks aren't available to him but are always extended to Irving.
"He thought he was going to come in and be a 2-guard and be a superstar," a source close to Waiters told Bleacher Report's Jared Zwerling. "He came in with the mentality that this was going to be his team."
But Cleveland doesn't have an opening for a team leader. It won't until Irving decides he needs a bigger market or a better supporting cast.
Waiters doesn't want to wait that long for his opportunity.
But that's OK. The Cavs can't afford to have him sitting around waiting for his big break anyway.
The Cavs had so many chances to make this right, but they've dug themselves quite a hole.
Clearly, there were better choices that could have been made on draft night 2012.
Harrison Barnes could have solved this team's small forward problem before it had to drop three draft picks for a half-season rental of Luol Deng. Andre Drummond could have been the big-body bruiser the Cavs thought they were getting in Andrew Bynum, only minus the crazy and packed with loads of potential and athleticism.
But there's no way to go back and change that pick.
The challenge for Cleveland now is figuring out how to get Waiters' trade value high enough to make it worth moving a top-five pick less than two years after making the selection.
Putting him next to Irving plagued his production and exposed his flaws. The Cavs need to find a masking agent that can somehow make Waiters look like the player that drew those ridiculous incredibly optimistic comparisons to Dwyane Wade.
Cleveland needs to salvage what it can. Teams aren't buying the player the Cavs thought Waiters could be, they're paying for what he is—a medium-volume scorer, part-time defender and potential problem child.
If Cleveland can turn him into a first-round pick, it should be a no-brainer. Hopefully this time the Cavs will actually use that choice on something they don't already have on the roster.