PHILADELPHIA — With LeBron James and Kyrie Irving back in Cleveland, this was supposed to be his night, in his city, in front of his people, but nothing really went according to script for Dion Waiters this season.
And so, after Waiters was introduced to the Wells Fargo Center—a crowd that included everyone from family members to his first-grade teacher—his evening was suddenly over, stopped before he could start, held out so he wouldn't tweak, twist or turn anything while the organization finalized his exit.
Soon, Alex Kirk and Lou Amundson would be summoned out of sight, too, and then told that their Cavaliers days had essentially come to a conclusion, as their non-guaranteed deals were being included to make the numbers work. But, while this was certainly a whirlwind for each—Amundson, prior to the game, had told reporters he'd "lost count" of his NBA teams—this was all about Waiters, who was emotional as he hugged Cavaliers assistants prior to leaving around halftime.
While he initially seemed part of the Cavaliers' long-term core, his trade, which nets Knicks guards Iman Shumpert, J.R. Smith and, most importantly, a protected first-round pick from Oklahoma City, shouldn't have surprised. Waiters was drafted in a different time, for a different team.
Picked fourth overall in 2012, ahead of the likes of Damian Lillard and Andre Drummond, after coming off the bench for 70 of his 71 games at Syracuse, Waiters showed his scoring flair in his 164 games with Cleveland, but he also too often showed his age, or absence thereof, in the way he carried himself.
As started becoming clear with every shot he took in preseason, he just didn't seem to fit with this new, more accomplished and urgent Cavaliers core, at least not yet, not at this stage of his life and career, not amid the increased expectations and under the intense scrutiny, not with his preferred style of play. That was evident when teammates would often ignore him for long stretches, as he touched it just once on the first 12 possessions of a loss to Portland, or even when he waved his arms and clapped his hands, as was the case against Chicago, and against Orlando, among others.
That was reinforced when he initially resisted a move back to the bench, and consistently resisted coach David Blatt's call for him to adopt more of a catch-and-shoot mindset, and even resisted James' public advice to stop worrying about what others thought of him, by (on that very same day) declaring himself part of the NBA's best backcourt.
But he also wasn't disruptive for disruption's sake—he loves to play and many teammates seemed to enjoy his company—nor was he close to the primary reason for Cleveland's struggles. So trading him wasn't about subtraction for subtraction's sake, as was the case with Detroit's recent excising of its Josh Smith problem. There needed to be actual addition, for a team that, even before a 95-92 loss to Philadelphia without two of its three All-Stars, had shown serious shortcomings. And the Cavaliers did some adding here, though the most talked-about newcomer won't necessarily be the needle-mover.
J.R. Smith, after all, is just what Waiters will be if the latter, six years younger, never really grows up. While many will view their games in similar fashion, since both can be electric and erratic offensively, and sometimes disengaged defensively, there are some differences in the way they play. Waiters is a more dynamic driver at this stage, and a better pure passer, even if he doesn't always display it. Smith, now 29, has greater shooting range, which can give James more of the space he craves, especially if James embraces more minutes at power forward—something he reluctantly did in Miami and hasn't been asked to do in Cleveland—with Smith and Mike Miller lurking on the wings.
Smith, however, also has the potential to drive Blatt and his teammates much crazier than Waiters ever could, at least until his contract (with a player option of $6.4 million next season) runs out. Smith, unlike Waiters, has shown some troublemaking tendencies, as new teammate Shawn Marion can attest; Marion was one of the victims of Smith's shoelace-untying sideshow. Smith has played in 51 playoff games, 51 more than Waiters, so he won't shrink in those moments, though he hasn't always excelled in them, either; he shot 31.6 and 33.1 percent, respectively, on high volume, in his last two postseasons with the Knicks.
It's Shumpert, however, who may be playing more by the time these playoffs come around, so long as his shoulder heals and he gets up to speed with Cleveland's system. Still just 24, he's an erratic offensive player whose progress was stalled some by the serious knee injury he suffered in the 2012 playoffs.
But, while the advanced metrics don't necessarily show it, he remains respected by opponents as a perimeter agitator. He's certainly a defensive upgrade over anyone else the Cavaliers have used in that spot, and at 6'5"—6'10" with the hair—he has the size and length to take some of the tougher wing assignments from James at times.
Shumpert didn't do much to help the Knicks win this season, but he may be the sort of player who simply fits better on a better team—think Boris Diaw or Trevor Ariza or Shane Battier—where he isn't asked to do much outside of his primary skill set.
No matter what Smith or Shumpert do, it won't matter much if general manager David Griffin can't add another functional frontcourt piece. But, even while using his disabled player exception in his deal, he did give himself another chip to acquire one: a protected 2015 first-round pick from Oklahoma City. He also still has a future first-round pick from Memphis that could eventually land in the lottery.
He will need to use those assets for a competent rim-protector, which still won't be easy to accomplish.
As one Cavalier said late Monday, "We knew we would morph into something else over time. We're not waiting around. The plan is to win now, in the next two or three years."
That plan doesn't include Dion Waiters anymore, as his Philadelphia fans found, when, after the anthem and introductions, they could no longer find one of their favorite native sons on the floor.