Lost in all the offseason excitement surrounding the Cleveland Cavaliers is arguably the second-best player on the roster.
For all the attention that Waiters received during the regular season, surrounding both his on-court play and off-court trade rumors, not a whisper has been uttered regarding the 22-year-old guard this summer.
We've seen his teammate Kyrie Irving sign a maximum contract extension, the team draft Andrew Wiggins and the ongoing courtship of LeBron James.
So, what about Waiters?
After all, his ability to create instant offense is remarkable given his age and experience. Waiters averaged more points (19.3 to 16.4), assists (3.6 to 2.9) and shot a higher percentage from deep (36.8 to 34.9) per 36 minutes of play than James Harden during each player's sophomore season.
The talent is there, but how long will it stay in Cleveland?
Andrew Wiggins a Shooting Guard?
When the Cavaliers selected Wiggins first overall in the 2014 draft, many believed it was to satisfy their need at the small forward position.
After all, Wiggins is perfectly built to play the 3 in the NBA at 6'8" and 200 pounds.
With Irving at point guard, Waiters at shooing guard and Wiggins holding down small forward, the Cavs presumably had their wing trio for years to come.
That was until GM David Griffin foreshadowed a bit of his plans for Wiggins long-term, via Jodie Valade of the Cleveland Plain Dealer:
Wiggins, a 6-foot-8 swingman, is a player that Griffin envisions ultimately settling into a shooting guard position.'If Andrew finds greatness in this league, it's going to be as a very big two-guard,' Griffin said.
That's not to say Wiggins won't begin the season as a 3, which should give him the best chance at immediate success. Some of the major knocks on Wiggins are his handle and ability to drive left, weaknesses that would be better masked playing forward instead of guard.
He's also not a great creator like Waiters, instead using his athleticism to score off cuts to the basket and in transition.
For Griffin to come out and declare his vision for Wiggins as a 2-guard should have been somewhat alarming to Waiters, who was actually drafted by the now-fired Chris Grant.
Griffin holds no allegiance to Waiters and may have just drafted his successor in Wiggins.
Waiters has too much talent to remain as a team's sixth man for his entire career, and could see a Harden-esque breakout should he be added to a starting lineup.
The Cavs could keep him in a reserve role for another year or so, but there's no way Waiters would re-sign in Cleveland knowing he'd continue to come off the bench behind Wiggins.
Speaking of extensions...
What's Waiters Worth?
We know Irving's worth to be $90 million, to the Cavaliers anyways.
Waiters will be eligible to sign his own extension next summer. With Irving agreeing to a five-year deal, the most Waiters could sign for would be four years at a substantially lower rate.
The truth is Waiters would probably be far more valuable to a different team.
Because he and Irving have such similar skill sets (ball-dominant, penetrating guards), neither have proved to be capable complements to one another.
The Cavaliers just committed $18 million of their annual cap space to fill the role of score-first guard. How much are they really going to want to pay for a second one, given all the other needs on a team?
It's tough to set a market value on Waiters after just two years in the league.
Here are some other recent extensions for young shooting guards:
- Eric Gordon signed a four-year, $58 million offer sheet with the Phoenix Suns in 2012 that his New Orleans Pelicans (then Hornets) decided to match.
- Gerald Henderson re-upped with the Charlotte Hornets (then Bobcats) for three years and $18 million in 2013.
- Avery Bradley extended his deal with the Boston Celtics for $32 million over four years this summer.
Among these deals, Waiters should realistically fall somewhere between Bradley ($8 million per season) and Gordon ($14.5 million per).
For a team like the Cavaliers who already have significant money tied up in Irving? Probably not.
It would be tough to see Cleveland offer Waiters anything over $8 million a season, far less than what Irving will be making.
Would Waiters be okay with that kind of pay differential? Would a move to the starting lineup help his willingness to re-sign?
The bottom line is Waiters is far more valuable to another team than he is to Cleveland as currently constructed.
If the Cavs wait until Waiters hits restricted free agency in the summer of 2016, they'll likely be faced with an offer sheet too pricey to match.
The LeBron Factor
If somehow, someway, the Cavaliers convince James to come back to his former team, expect drastic roster changes to follow.
Even with a star like Irving, the Cavs have tried to acquire another big name to help lure James back for a while now. Joining a team headlined by Irving and Wiggins is tempting. Joining one with Irving, Wiggins and Kevin Love may be too good to pass up.
Jason Lloyd of the Akron Beacon Journal had this to say about the situation back in March:
Yes, (Chris) Grant tried feverishly for the past two years, but could never find that second star to pair with Kyrie Irving and ultimately serve as the bait to lure James back to the Cavs. But the Cavs privately believe it’s not too late. They still have the assets to pull off a mammoth trade this summer at the draft, the type Grant tried so hard to make. Kevin Love will be entering the final year of his contract, as will LaMarcus Aldridge.
There was also a report out recently from Sam Amico of Fox Sports Ohio stating that Irving told James the Cavs would get the help that he needs:
Kyrie Irving has made recruiting pitch to LeBron James, sources say. ESPN reports Kyrie as saying Cavs will get LeBron all the help he needs— Sam Amico (@SamAmicoFSO) July 7, 2014
Whatever the case may be, it appears the Cavaliers would not stop making moves should they be able to sign James.
This is where Waiters comes into play.
Cleveland isn't going to trade Irving, who they now have under team control through 2020. Wiggins also isn't likely to get dealt, especially if Griffin believes the 19-year-old's future is at shooting guard.
Tristan Thompson would seem like a logical trade option, but he shares an agent and friendship with James. No dice there.
This leaves Waiters as the team's best trade chip. Just 22, Waiters averaged 19.3 points and 3.7 assists after the All-Star break last season. The Cavaliers can also offer a newly slimmed down Anthony Bennett, Tyler Zeller, Sergey Karasev and three 2015 first-round picks (via Cleveland, Memphis Grizzlies and Miami Heat) in a potential deal.
A team with Irving, James, Wiggins, Thompson and Anderson Varejao just wouldn't have enough basketball to go around for Waiters to get the shot numbers that he needs to excel.
Even if Cleveland fails to sign James, they could pursue another small forward like Chandler Parsons, Gordon Hayward or Trevor Ariza and look to deal Waiters.
Right now, the odds of Waiters staying with the Cavs past his rookie contract look bleak.
Between the drafting of Wiggins, Irving's big-money extension and the pursuit of James, Waiters' time in Cleveland may be running out.
All stats provided by Basketball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.