Why Dion Waiters Should Embrace Sixth-Man Role for Cleveland Cavaliers

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistJuly 30, 2014

Cleveland Cavaliers shooting guard Dion Waiters wants to start next season. But if he wants a chance to showcase his offensive skills, he needs to embrace the sixth-man role he was born to fill.

And that will ring true even if top pick Andrew Wiggins gets swept up by the swirling Kevin Love trade winds.

Waiters doesn't see it that way. He made that pretty clear on Twitter earlier this summer. And while he backtracked a bit from his initial statement, the sentiment apparently hasn't changed.

"I want to start and I believe that I should at the two," he told Comcast SportsNet's Chris Haynes recently.

He went on to defend his decision to make his feelings public:

I just say how I feel. I’m going to do whatever is best for the team, of course, but at the end of the day, I’m a man and I’m confident in myself. I’ve always been a guy that gives it right to you. I’ve never been a guy that plays that political stuff. I was brought up that way. I’m straightforward. I give my honest opinion. I’m not going to sit here and hide. They asked a question and I tell you.

None of this is inherently wrong.

Supreme confidence is a necessity for professional athletes. With millions of hoop-dreamers battling for roughly 450 NBA roster spots each season, the slightest bit of self-doubt can derail a career faster than a pair of bum knees.

And Waiters' honesty is refreshing, not problematic. For all of the recycled clichés that run rampant through sports interviews, his candor should be appreciated.

Of course, assurance and truthfulness do nothing to help his actual argument. It's hard to tell exactly what could.

If Waiters has a case to be made, it's that he is probably one of Cleveland's most talented perimeter players. That "probably" qualifier might not even be needed if Wiggins gets shipped out for Love, an outcome that feels more probable than possible with sources dubbing the Cavaliers as "the front-runner" in the league-wide race for the stranded superstar, via ESPN.com's Marc Stein and Brian Windhorst.

Should Wiggins wind up sticking with Cleveland, Waiters' hopes of starting would be over. Cavs general manager David Griffin told reporters he sees Wiggins as "a very big two-guard," so the possibilities of the rook and Waiters starting together seem slim—or perhaps nonexistent.

Wiggins needs to develop his offense, but he has the tools to be a disruptive defender and explosive slasher out of the gate. If you built an ideal perimeter running mate for Kyrie Irving and LeBron James, that player would bear a striking resemblance to Wiggins.

Let's assume that Wiggins departs, though. After all, with James having extended an invitation to Love and the double-double machine having possibly RSVP'd, it feels like that's where this story is headed.

Would that open up a starting spot for Waiters? Head coach David Blatt will ultimately make that call, but the numbers say it shouldn't.

Waiters has always been an awkward fit alongside Irving, and that has nothing to do with the off-court feud the two may or may not have.

There are basketball reasons to keep them apart. The Cavs weren't good last season, but they were worse when Waiters and Irving shared the floor. Cleveland was outscored by 6.2 points per 100 possessions when the pair played together, via NBA.com, a net rating that would have ranked 27th overall.

Their individual numbers—shown in the table below on a per-48-minute scaleworsened whenever the other was on the floor.

Statistical Reasons for Separating Irving and Waiters
Irving w/ Waiters27.941.933.17.44.7-6.2
Irving w/o Waiters28.843.937.79.05.2-4.3
Waiters w/ Irving22.942.635.54.24.2-6.2
Waiters w/o Irving28.843.938.

"Waiters and Irving don't have major personal issues, it's their styles of play that conflict," wrote Terry Pluto of The Plain Dealer. "They both are guards who are best when they have the ball — and they know it."

There haven't been enough touches to go around for Waiters and Irving while the Cavs have been lousy. Think more will suddenly surface with the addition of James (and his career 31.6 usage percentage, via Basketball-Reference.com) and possibly Love (25.3)? Not a chance.

Waiters would be a fourth option at best in any lineup that featured James, Love and Irving. How many isolations and pick-and-rolls—situations that accounted for 51.2 percent of Waiters' offensive plays last season, via Synergy Sports (subscription required)—are drawn up for the fourth member of an NBA food chain?

If you answered "not many," you're on the right track but still a little too generous.

"With Kyrie Irving and LeBron James on the court together, Cleveland doesn't necessarily need Waiters' playmaking and penetration in the starting lineup," noted CBS Sports' James Herbert.

The word "necessarily" wasn't necessary. The Cavs will have more than enough dribble drives and delicious dimes coming from Irving and James. Waiters might be forced to scratch out an existence as a complementary floor spacer, a role his career 34.2 three-point percentage suggests he's hardly equipped to fill.

Waiters is a volume scorer, capable of producing both monster games (six outings with 25-plus points last season) and duds (seven with five or fewer). The volatility in his stat sheet is the same as what you'd see from super subs like Jamal Crawford (six games with 30-plus points, nine in single-digits) and Manu Ginobili (10 20-plus point performances, 11 games with six or fewer).

Talent doesn't trump everything, putting a major dent into perhaps the only argument Waiters had.

Even if Blatt gives Waiters the chance to start, his game could force him back into a reserve role.

"Unless he makes a leap Waiters is going to lose his starting job sooner rather than later," wrote NBC Sports' Kurt Helin. "He averaged 15.9 points a game last season but needed 14.2 shots to get there. He shot the three ball better (36.8 percent) but he has a true shooting percentage of .508...He’s just not efficient."

He thrives in the analytical dead zone known as the mid-range and struggles from the most efficient points on the floor: beyond the three-point line and point-blank near the basket.

He has talent, but a skill set like his requires careful monitoring. He's a low-volume scorer in the starting lineup, but bring him out with the reserves and he can be an impact spark plug.

There's nothing wrong with coming off the bench. Waiters might actually enjoy manning the role on a winning team.

He would be the offensive focal point of the second team. He would be matched up against lesser defenders who could have a hard time dealing with his combination of quickness, strength and athleticism.

With the shooters Cleveland has added this summer—Mike Miller, James Jones and Joe Harris already, Ray Allen possibly next—Waiters should have a better-spaced floor than he had in his first two seasons. And with Blatt at the helm, Waiters should be in line for ample scoring chances.

There's so much for him to gain, but only if he's willing to sacrifice the one thing he's been publicly chasing all summer.


Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com.


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