So much of becoming an NBA star has to do with timing—not only when and where you’re playing, but whom you’re playing with, as well.
Extreme examples though these might be, the question remains: How many would-be stars—by dint of circumstance rather than talent—were relegated to the dustbins of basketball history?
Suffice it to say it’s a logic spinning through the mind of Dion Waiters, the Cleveland Cavaliers’ mercurial third-year guard who in two short months has gone from possible second star in the making to fourth fiddle at best.
With LeBron James, Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving now set as the team’s unquestioned cornerstones, Cleveland faces a confounding dilemma with Waiters: Hope that he grows into a productive complementary piece, or trade him now—while his upside’s still high—in hopes of reeling in players more conducive to its win-now ethos.
To his credit, Waiters is approaching the Cavs’ impending pressure cooker with palpable aplomb, telling the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Mike Sielski, "When I get the opportunity to get the ball, I’ve got to destroy my opponent. The rest of the floor is going to be so wide open that, once I get by him, the rest of it should be easy."
To be sure, confidence has never been a scarce commodity for the former No. 4 overall pick. Even if the bombast doesn’t exactly jive with the facts.
Case in point: Waiters’ recent remarks suggesting Love—with whom he’s regularly trained in Los Angeles during the offseason—appreciated the 6’4” guard’s passing skills.
"He likes my game," Waiters said. "He thinks I’m underrated. One of the things about K-Love, he knows I pass the ball."
Few superstars achieve that status without boasting something of an outsized ego, and Waiters is—in this regard, anyway—no exception. Just how high his actual ceiling in terms of production is, however, remains an open question.
But let's keep in mind that Waiters does boast a statistical resume not very far afield from one of his position’s living legends:
|Player (season age)||Points per 36||Rebounds per 36||TS%||PER|
|Dwyane Wade (22)||16.8||4.2||.530||17.6|
|Dion Waiters (22)||19.3||3.4||.508||14.0|
Enticing though the numbers are, it’s worth remembering Dwyane Wade authored his during his rookie season. Waiters, meanwhile, tallied his in his second year.
Just before the start of the 2013-14 season, Sports Illustrated’s Rob Mahoney dug into the question of whether or not Waiters had what it took to become the league’s next great shooting guard. And while the analysis itself is slightly outdated, the caveats it posits are ones that, with James and Love in the fray, stand to come frighteningly true:
Not only was Waiters gradually more effective around the basket as a result of diversifying his driving game, but he also took significantly fewer off-the-dribble three-point attempts as his rookie season progressed. His awareness of open teammates and rotating defenders is still fairly low, but for Waiters to pass up some of those quick, contested threes represents a sound development toward a rich evolution.
His grasp of the game will undoubtedly improve along similar lines, but what remains to be seen is if Waiters can truly compromise his style while retaining his conviction. It's that give and take -- between balance and audacity -- that will define these early stages of his career, and could come to shape his NBA course.
Suffice it to say, Waiters isn’t going to be logging increases in shots or points any time soon—at least not with these Cavs. What he most likely will do, though, is become much more efficient at both ends of the floor.
That would certainly be a coup for Cleveland, which, despite its sudden status as bona fide Finals favorites, still needs steady production from the fringes.
At the same time, there are bound to be plenty of suitors who see in Waiters’ upside reason enough to roll the dice on a trade—particularly given the league’s glaring dearth of All-Star-caliber shooting guards.
The issue from Cleveland’s perspective is one of financial flexibility: With $68 million already committed and possibly more veteran signings on the way (Ray Allen in particular has been mentioned as a viable candidate, per Marc J. Spears of Yahoo Sports), the Cavs simply can’t afford to take back more than the $4 million Waiters stands to earn this season.
That significantly limits the range of return assets Cleveland could fetch.
While certainly unlikely, the Cavs could simply decline Waiters’ $5.2 million option for the 2014-15 season—especially if Waiters somehow proves himself a poor fit in head coach David Blatt’s rotation.
At that point, Waiters could sign with whomever he pleased. Whether or not that outcome would be better for his growth and development, however, is debatable at best.
At 22 years old, Waiters is nothing if not a work in progress, a sentiment LeBron himself acknowledged in his announcement letter for Sports Illustrated, citing the former Syracuse product by name as one whose game James intended to “elevate” in the months and years to come.
With so many teams beholden to unproven rebuilding plans, cutting Waiters adrift by no means guarantees he’ll land with a franchise committed to nurturing his potential.
Cleveland, on the other hand, offers something nearly impossible to quantify: the experience of playing with and learning from two of the best basketball players—and one of the most renowned, well-respected coaches—anywhere in the world.
Paths to NBA stardom can take any one of a thousand forms, from the immediate impact of a LeBron James to the patience-laden career of Chauncey Billups and just about everything in between.
Being Cleveland’s fourth option might feel to Waiters like yet another gale sent to prevent his ship from sailing. Really, he should be taking the opposite perspective: When you have three ships this powerful in your armada, the rising tide is sure to lift you higher than you ever thought possible.