The Miami Heat might’ve been an aging goliath, but compared to the alternative LeBron James now faces with the Cleveland Cavaliers—youth and talent, sure, but with baggage enough for an airport claim—you can’t say he took the easy way out.
It doesn’t help that James leaves behind two Hall of Famers, of course.
Unless, however, King James is able to do something almost as difficult as bringing a banner to his title-starved state: turning Dion Waiters into the next Dwyane Wade.
Without a doubt, I really believe that [I’ll eventually be the best shooting guard in the NBA]. This year, I’m going to show a lot of people who doubted me and still doubt me. I’m going to show them. And I don’t need praise and all of that. I just want to be respected. I’m coming. That’s all I have to say. I’ve taken my work ethic to another level and I feel as though I still have something to prove. So, watch out.
Arrogant? Perhaps. Although best of luck convincing anyone that Wade or Kobe Bryant, in a moment of candid self-reflection, wouldn’t say the exact same thing.
Bringing that bombast to bear on the statistical picture, however, is a much harder nut to make:
To be sure, there are plenty of sizable discrepancies, beginning with Wade’s significantly superior player efficiency rating.
Still, comparisons abound—from height (both are 6’4”) to lottery stock (Waiters was taken No. 4 overall in 2012, Wade No. 5 in 2003), sure, but more importantly in the two’s stylistic similarity. In short, both have a unique knack for attacking the basket with reckless abandon.
Sadly, such cavalier forays have been perhaps the single biggest factor in Wade’s well-documented physical decline. That most of the wear and tear happened before James even arrived makes the comparison particularly instructive.
Indeed, with LeBron in the fold, Waiters won’t have to worry about getting hoops the hard way. Instead, he can focus more on what he’s already proved he can do far better and more consistently than his elder doppelganger: hit threes at a consistent clip.
Between years one and two, Waiters’ three-point prowess jumped an impressive 58 percentage points. Should Waiters ride that upward trend toward 40 percent, while at the same time bringing his free-throw shooting back up to his rookie-year level of 75 percent, the resulting efficiency will prove a potent boon to Cleveland’s offensive attack.
Without a doubt, Waiters’ statistical uptick can be attributed in large part to Kyrie Irving’s relatively injury-free third season. Having one of the game’s best young point guards to keep opposing defenses honest tends to have that effect.
Adding James to the mix? Waiters will be able to bake a turkey in the time it takes for a collapsed defender to close back out.
LeBorn’s effect on teammate efficiency is, at this point, practically a truism. But it’s in how James can mold his mercurial understudy beyond the court that could pay the biggest dividend.
Following a particularly brutal loss to the Sacramento Kings back in January, Jason Lloyd of the Akron Beacon Journal stated explicitly what had, up to that point, been relegated to gossip: Dion Waiters was becoming a locker room problem:
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…As one player put it, stars can get away with the stuff Waiters pulls on occasion, but Waiters hasn’t even established himself yet in this league, let alone carved out star status. The thing about him is he’s not a bad guy. He’s not a locker room cancer or a coach killer. He just sulks, pouts, broods … whatever word you want to use. And it has to stop if he’s ever going to reach his potential, because I believe he could be a very good player in this league. But he has to stop the nonsense.
All of which came light just two months after ESPN The Magazine's Chris Broussard reported a growing rift between Irving and Waiters, with the latter accusing the former of benefiting from an organizational “double standard.”
If the greatest player on the planet can’t get these two to respect each other, who can?
Notwithstanding the obvious gains to be had from pumping your player’s professional stock, Boeheim’s sentiments underscore an important piece of the acutely complex puzzle that is Waiters: That for all his histrionics, Waiters remains a quantum NBA talent.
As with new head coach David Blatt—a veteran of the European circuit as renowned for his strategic genius as he is his personal touch, via Mary Schmitt Boyer of The Plain Dealer—James’ job is as much about imparting his basketball wisdom as it is cleaning up Cleveland’s caustic locker room dynamic.
Waiters, then, represents the nexus point of these two dovetailing goals—the player who stands to gain or lose the most, depending on how the dynamics are dealt with.
Four years ago, LeBron bolted Cleveland as much for the better basketball pastures as the peer perspective Wade and Bosh brought to the table.
This time around, it’s James who must single-handedly bring that wisdom to bear, and Waiters—beaten down as he’s been by some of the same demons James once faced as Cleveland’s supposed savior—who must receive it. Willingly and with an open mind.
Helping Waiters become the league’s next great shooting guard will demand of James stern words and lofty lectures somewhat unbecoming his image as congenial basketball general. It’s a level of pedagogical authority he’s never had and, should things fly furiously off the rails, might never again desire.
As such, there remain plenty for whom Waiters reaching his full potential remains wholly impossible—a fantasy affordable only to those possessing some cosmic basketball currency.
Luckily for Waiters, James has been dealing in those dollars for years.