The only thing standing between Dion Waiters and the 2014-15 Sixth Man of the Year Award might be Waiters himself.
That could be a bigger hurdle to clear than it might seem. He entered 46 of his 70 games as a reserve last season and sounds ready to put his second-team days behind him.
"I want to start and I believe that I should at the 2," he told Comcast SportsNet's Chris Haynes in July.
In terms of talent, Waiters has quite a compelling argument to make. Strong, athletic and bulldog-tough, he has a deeper bag of offensive tricks than both the Cleveland Cavaliers' incumbent off-guards and the ring-chasing vets who followed LeBron James' lead to Northeast Ohio.
Just 22 years old and showing clear signs of improvement—last season, he set personal bests in points per game (15.9), field-goal percentage (43.3), three-point percentage (36.8) and rebounds per game (2.8)—Waiters certainly looks like one of Cleveland's five best players.
But despite his obvious talent and even more apparent disinterest in reprising his reserve role, he hasn't officially grabbed a place in coach David Blatt's opening lineup.
The first-year Cavs coach recently held a Q&A session with the help of Basketball Insiders' David Pick during which he was asked about Waiters' role on this team. Blatt left all options on the table, neither offering up a starting spot nor banishing the third-year guard to the bench:
Dion is a lot of things to this team. I’ve never seen any particular importance to the emphasis of starting or not, I see an emphasis on playing and helping the team win. That’s not to say he will or won’t start, that’s not the point. I think his and every player’s motto and desire needs to be to help the team win. That’s what’s important.
Blatt is absolutely correct.
Starting does not always serve as a reflection of skill. If teams always handed out those jobs to their five most talented players, then the list of the league's Sixth Man of the Year Award winners would look dramatically different.
Oftentimes, starting and reserve roles are handed out based on play style. History has shown that quick-strike scoring guards, or players like Waiters, are often best utilized off the pine.
While that might not be what he wants to hear, it's a concern that could be mitigated by the fact that the best of these players typically see action when it really matters: at the end of games.
It's hard to say how much of Waiters' NBA experience he can carry over into this season. He was the No. 2 option on a 33-win team in 2013-14. His 26.9 usage percentage was easily the second-highest among Cleveland's regulars.
Now, Waiters will be fighting with players like Shawn Marion, Tristan Thompson and Mike Miller—perhaps even Ray Allen, according to Marc J. Spears of Yahoo Sports—to be the fourth wheel on a team FiveThirtyEight's Nate Silver projects for 65 victories.
Waiters packs a mean scoring punch, but he isn't close to the levels of James (27.1 points per game last season), Kevin Love (26.1 PPG) and Kyrie Irving (20.8 PPG).
The 2014-15 campaign will be one of change for every remaining Cavalier, but Waiters may need to adapt more than most. NBA.com indicates he scored more points per game on pull-up jumpers (4.6) than catch-and-shoot field goals (3.9) last season, and he knows his isolation scoring won't be needed nearly as much this time around.
"I have to make adjustments," Waiters told ESPN.com's Brian Windhorst. "I have to find ways to impact the game without having the ball. I'm planning to go watch tape to see what D-Wade did when he played with LeBron. I need to learn how to be effective out there with him."
That is part of the challenge Waiters, along with the rest of the roster, will face going forward.
Despite employing three perennial All-Stars, the Cavs need to ensure that their whole is somehow greater than the sum of their individual parts.
Waiters is right. He needs to learn how to effectively share the floor with James. However, that's only part of the equation.
The starting squad could be historically powerful at the offensive end whether Waiters is out there or not. Where his individual offensive gifts could really come in handy is on the same second team he anchored last season.
He has to balance both roles—alpha dog with the reserves, efficient support piece with the headliners—and that juggling act could be easier to manage if gets himself going off the bench before settling back into a complementary role.
Waiters' assignment list will change over the course of a game, and Cleveland needs him to ace every test thrown his way.
"When he's playing with James, Irving and Love, he has to capitalize as a shooter," noted Bleacher Report's Jonathan Wasserman. "When he's playing with Matthew Dellavedova, Mike Miller and Tristan Thompson, he has to tap into that dangerous one-on-one game of his to generate offense on his own."
The more time he logs with the bench mob, the better Waiters' numbers will be. He can light the lamp in an instant if he signs off on the unique opportunity presented to him.
A substitute spot would allow him to continue doing what he does best, while also helping him take advantage of the weapons around him in spurts.
For an expert slasher and explosive transition weapon, he can gain so much from Love's generational gift for outlet passing and James' otherworldly court vision. But those chances may come few and far between, which might leave Waiters fighting for—or worse, forcing—shots.
As Bleacher Report's Greg Swartz explained, Waiters' game is built for the sixth-man role:
Waiters is a strong isolation player with a quick first step. His body is muscular enough to absorb contact on the way to the basket and finish in and around traffic.
As a reserve, this is a tremendous quality to have, especially when less skilled offensive players are on the court and scoring is at a premium.
Add James, Irving and Love to the mix, and suddenly Waiters' isolation offense is largely a wasted weapon.
Carefully blended between both lineups, though, it's a potentially potent gift that should be painted in a different light than ever before.
He could be an expert support scorer, not a ball-stopper with troubling defensive deficiencies. By accepting a team-friendly role, particularly one that isn't on the top of his wish list, he might be seen as a strong chemistry guy and not the one who has seemed to beef with Irving these last few seasons.
The media loves telling a redemption story, especially in the context of a potential championship run.
Award voters also prefer celebrating someone from a winning team, and judging by historical voting trends, they really like high-scoring reserves.
With the stats, team success and tale of personal triumph all bolstering his campaign, Waiters should hold the pole position in the 2014-15 Sixth Man of the Year Award race. He will as soon as he allows himself to be officially nominated for it.
Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com.
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