What's Dion Waiters' New Ceiling as LeBron James' Sidekick?

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What's Dion Waiters' New Ceiling as LeBron James' Sidekick?
USA TODAY Sports

Two years into his NBA career, Dion Waiters remains something of a mystery—one that will soon be solved, thanks to LeBron James' return to the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Waiters' talent has never been at issue. He's lightning-fast off the dribble and has a real knack for getting to the hoop.

Per SportVU data provided to NBA.com, Waiters logged an average of 7.3 drives in just under 30 minutes per game last year. That's an excellent figure, higher than the ones posted by teammates Kyrie Irving and James in 2013-14.

His first step is elite, and it has afforded Waiters the added benefit of an extra foot or two of space from worried defenders. No wonder, then, that the Cavs guard has also proved himself to be a much better standstill shooter than most realize.

Though his form features a problematic windup, according to Synergy Sports (subscription required), Waiters was an excellent spot-up sniper last season. In averaging 1.14 points per spot-up attempt, he ranked 42nd in the entire NBA.

Allen Einstein/Getty Images

Waiters' considerable scoring prowess comes with confidence, which is where things get a little complicated. He believes in himself to an almost damaging degree, and we know that because of his tendency to force difficult shots and his reported spats over touches with Irving, per Jason Lloyd of the Akron Beacon Journal.

It's tempting to conclude that Waiters' overconfidence and attitude will prevent him from ever becoming a meaningful contributor on a good team. But that's a hasty way to think. The truth is, he hasn't yet been in a situation where he could maximize his talents.

The Cavs have been a poor working environment for as long as Waiters has been in Cleveland. Weak rosters, uninventive offenses and a losing culture made it hard to judge him fairly.

Everything's different now.

 

New Order

Ty Wright/Getty Images

Adding James and Kevin Love creates a clear hierarchy for the Cavaliers. If Waiters complains about his opportunities now, we'll know he's gone from overconfident to delusional. But if he can accept the role into which he'll be slotted, that of scoring specialist, there's reason to believe Waiters could blossom.

He'll get everything he needs this season, particularly the space in the middle of the floor that makes his off-the-dribble attacks so dangerous.

"I hate losing, and a guy like [James], who's probably the best player in the world right now, is someone I can learn from," Waiters told Mike Sieiski of the Philadelphia Inquirer. "I can grow. I still haven't reached my peak. Now with a guy like that, he can open up the floor for you and give you a lot of opportunities."

Waiters is dead right on that point. Space is exactly what he needs to thrive.

For evidence, consider what Tristan Thompson, paint-clogger extraordinaire, did to Waiters' numbers when the two shared the court last year.

The Cavs posted a net rating of plus-4.5 points per 100 possessions when Waiters was on the floor without Thompson last season, and a minus-7.3 with him, per NBA.com. Imagine what'll be possible with the space created by Love, James and bench marksmen like Mike Miller and James Jones.

In theory, that added offensive openness could also lead to better efficiency from Waiters near the basket. Defenders focused on the Cavaliers' other options will likely be scrambling to recover when the ball rotates to Waiters, and opponents already have a hard enough time staying in front of him with feet set.

Off-balance recoveries and an open lane should result in fewer missed layups and the end of shot charts like this one:

Via NBA.com

Spot-up chances should come more consistently and with less defensive attention. The Cavaliers assured themselves a solid passing game by getting James; adding Love and his 4.4 assists per game feels patently unfair. And if Waiters knows his teammates will find him when he's open, perhaps we'll see fewer forced shots and off-the-dribble pull-ups.

Added bonus: Waiters plans to study up on how to fit alongside James, per Brian Windhorst of ESPN.com:

I have to make adjustments. I like to have the ball, and we have Kyrie, and he likes to have the ball. So 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.

It's hard to know if the instinctive cutting that made Dwyane Wade such a dangerous sidekick for James can be learned. But at least Waiters has a blueprint.

Sieiski writes:

At 6-foot-4 and 225 pounds, Waiters is virtually a physical clone of Dwyane Wade, and at 22, Waiters has the advantage of being 10 years younger than Wade, too - details that weren't likely to have escaped James' attention as he weighed whether to re-sign with the Miami Heat or come back to Cleveland.

 

Fresh Start, High Ceiling

Fernando Medina/Getty Images

This will be a fresh start for Waiters, something most third-year players don't get. He's out of excuses, and he now has the talent around him to make his life as a scoring specialist easy—which raises another point: Too often, we ask players with elite skills in one area to contribute in others. That's not a mistake the Cavs should make with Waiters.

Must he defend? Sure. But Cleveland will get the most out of Waiters by emphasizing his strengths as a scorer—not by asking him to do a little bit of everything else. It's OK to be very good at a couple of things, and a well-rounded game isn't realistic for every player.

Waiters has limitations, but he's in a situation now where the talent around him will help to minimize them. Whether he starts or comes off the pine, he'll almost always be playing a secondary role, and that's just fine. That will give him a chance to emphasize his strengths.

If everything goes to plan, we should see Waiters increase his scoring volume marginally, but his efficiency by a much more substantial measure. Sixth Man of the Year is very much in play if the Cavaliers opt to use him as a spark plug, and we should expect to see Waiters on the floor to close games regardless.

Stardom isn't an option now, not with so much veteran talent around him. But Waiters is in position to become one of the league's great scoring specialists—one the rest of the NBA won't be able to scheme against because of the superstars with whom he'll share the floor.

The Cavaliers don't need anything from Waiters to be a very good team. But a step forward from the third-year guard could help them become great.

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