Dion Waiters Trade Creating More Confusion for Struggling OKC Thunder

Dave Leonardis@@FrontPageDaveContributor IIIFebruary 4, 2015

MIAMI, FL - JANUARY 20: Dion Waiters #23 of the Oklahoma City Thunder drives against Dwyane Wade #3 of the Miami Heat on January 20, 2015 at American Airlines Arena in Miami, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2015 NBAE (Photo by Isaac Baldizon/NBAE via Getty Images)
Issac Baldizon/Getty Images

The Oklahoma City Thunder have to wonder whether the acquisition of Dion Waiters was worth all of the confusion it has caused in the first few weeks.

In exchange for Waiters' scoring punch, the team's rotations have lacked consistency. Role players such as Reggie Jackson and Andre Roberson have seen their minutes fluctuate and their production suffer. Most importantly, the team doesn't appear to be much better than it was prior to Waiters' arrival. 

Since Waiters made his Thunder debut on Jan. 7 against the Sacramento Kings, OKC has gone 7-6. Waiters has contributed 11.8 points per game, but his shooting has left much to be desired. He's converting just 38.4 percent from the field, including 28.9 percent from three. That's about as effective as wearing ice skates in the sand. 

Waiters' offensive struggles might be best summed up by this play against the Memphis Grizzlies, when he botched a wide-open layup with no defender even on his side of the court. Maybe he just wanted to pad his stats or maybe he just held the Square button down too long. Either way, it was bad. 

The silver lining is that, after a tumultuous run with the Cleveland Cavaliers, Waiters feels at home with his new team.

"They brought me in since day one with love," Waiters said, per Darnell Mayberry of The Oklahoman. "It seems like I've been here forever. It seems like I've been playing with them forever, too. When I came here, we clicked right away."

Unfortunately, assimilating Waiters into the group has come at a cost. After his arrival, the Thunder wasted little time in handing Jackson's sixth man role over to the newest member of the group. Jackson's production had already taken a hit with the return of Russell Westbrook, but as seen in the chart below, it really took a nosedive once his role was usurped by Waiters. Also, since the trade, Waiters has played 373 minutes in a Thunder uniform while Jackson has logged 262.

Reggie Jackson's Monthly Stats Before and After Waiters Trade
MonthMinutes Per GamePoints Per GameRebounds Per GameAssists Per Game
November38.219.55.37.5
December28.412.43.63.1
January (Waiters arrived Jan. 6)21.19.43.52.8
ESPN.com

While the Waiters trade was an understandable gamble given the team's needs and the price of acquiring the mercurial swingman, it hasn't worked out as seamlessly as Scott Brooks and Co. might have hoped.

 

Should Dion Waiters Start?

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK- JANUARY 16: Dion Waiters #23 and Kevin Durant #35 of the Oklahoma City Thunder celebrate during a game against the Golden State Warriors on January 16, 2015 at Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City, OK. NOTE TO USER: User expressly a
Layne Murdoch/Getty Images

The addition of Waiters, while adding an offensive boost, further complicates an already-crowded OKC backcourt. Once the Syracuse guard finds his groove, it's only a matter of time before fans start beating the drum for Waiters to replace Roberson in the first five. 

After all, Roberson has been a starter in name only since Waiters arrived. The latter has seen the bulk of the minutes at shooting guard (Waiters 373, Roberson 191) while the former has been reduced to a defensive specialist still finding his way as a scorer. 

Waiters played admirably in his first start with Oklahoma City, replacing the injured Kevin Durant in a win over the Orlando Magic on Feb. 2. He finished with 24 points on 9-of-15 shooting in 41 minutes. By comparison, Roberson and Jackson played a combined 40 minutes and contributed just two points. 

Afterwards, DailyThunder.com's Royce Young admitted to being receptive to the idea of Waiters in the starting lineup but also pointed out the drawbacks:

If you want to make a case for Waiters to start, I'm listening. I think his defense is better than his reputation suggests, and he seems to play better alongside Westbrook than Jackson. Starting Waiters does limit your bench pop significantly, because it means Roberson either doesn't play, or he's getting 12-15 minutes with an already weak scoring second unit.

Comparing Reggie Jackson and Dion Waiters Defensively
NameDefensive RatingDefended Field Goal PercentageNormal Field Goal Percentage (Differential)Steals Per Game
Reggie Jackson10545.543.9 (+1.6)0.9
Dion Waiters10446.143.9 (+2.2)1.4
NBA.com and Basketball-Reference

Regardless of how Oklahoma City tries to alleviate this logjam, there's bound to be an issue. That's why it was a bit confusing to add Waiters and not subtract one (or two) of the team's plethora of guards. With so many viable candidates in the backcourt, it's hard to keep everyone happy, especially now that they are all healthy. 

 

The Redundancy of Playing Waiters and Jackson Together

SACRAMENTO, CA - JANUARY 7: Dion Waiters #23 and Reggie Jackson #15 of the Oklahoma City Thunder talk during the game against the Sacramento Kings on January 7, 2015 at Sleep Train Arena in Sacramento, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges
Rocky Widner/Getty Images

At his best, Waiters is a ball-dominant guard who can create offense for himself and others. While he can knock down the occasional trey, his strength is bulldozing his way to the basket. The problem is, the same can be said about Jackson.

Two guys who need the rock to be effective. Only one basketball. Both Jackson and Waiters have seen this movie before, and neither seemed to enjoy the ending.

The trade for Waiters made sense from a business perspective. Jackson, a restricted free agent at the end of the season, had dropped subtle hints about playing elsewhere.

"Just trying to play my role while I'm here." Jackson said in November, per Berry Tramel of The Oklahoman.

Waiters, meanwhile, is under contract for next season. This gives the Thunder both leverage in negotiations with Jackson as well as a replacement if the Boston College product bolts. If a Jackson trade were to come along in the meantime, Waiters would soak up even more minutes.

It's a smart move for the future. But what about the present? 

Rather than wait for Jackson to move on, the team has seemingly replaced him with Waiters in the rotation. Waiters has typically been the first guard off the bench, which was the role Jackson used to play. It's like being forced to watch your buddy drive by you in his new Mustang after your car just broke down.

When they play together, the unit isn't very effective. According to 82games.com, their five-man unit along with the team's other reserves (Anthony Morrow, Nick Collison, Kendrick Perkins) posts a plus/minus of minus-four.

Oddly enough, the best unit featuring Waiters and Jackson is alongside OKC's "Big Three" (Durant, Westbrook, Serge Ibaka). That group has a rating of plus-nine—although you have to wonder how much of that is even a result of Waiters and Jackson being there.

Given the similarities to their respective games, it would make sense to keep Waiters and Jackson separated. Of course, doing that brings us back to the earlier problem of trying to keep everyone happy and the Thunder's need to get production from both 

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK- FEBRUARY 2:  Dion Waiters #23 of the Oklahoma City Thunder goes up for a dunk against the Orlando Magic during the game on February 2, 2015 at Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges
Layne Murdoch/Getty Images

The Dion Waiters trade is more of a work in progress than a complete bust. The Oklahoma City Thunder were so desperate for a spark that they committed to their new addition without thinking about how that might affect the guys he's replacing. 

Thirteen games later, the team isn't any further along than where it started. The Thunder are 24-24 and sit three games behind the Phoenix Suns for the eighth seed in the West. The biggest difference between now and the pre-Waiters era is that the rotation looks to be in a state of flux. 

While there have been no signs of anarchy, the inconsistent delegation of minutes might explain the team's inability to find a rhythm. Chemistry and cohesiveness are every bit as important to a team's success as talent. 

Before the Thunder can make a run at a playoff spot, they must first clean up the mess they've made from their biggest splash of the season.

 

Note: All stats current as of Feb. 3 and are courtesy of NBA.com unless otherwise noted.

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