When the Cleveland Cavaliers selected Syracuse shooting guard Dion Waiters with the fourth pick in the 2012 NBA draft, they did so with the hope that he'd become an ideal running mate for Kyrie Irving.
Now, two-and-a-half years later, the 22-year-old has been anything but.
For three seasons, Waiters has bounced back and forth between starter and sub for the Cavs. He and Irving often clashed on the court, with both unable to excel at playing off the ball.
Still, Waiters' talent is undeniable.
He scored 15.9 points per game last season as the team's sixth man, the highest total of any Eastern Conference reserve. Waiters' ability to play pick-and-roll could someday reach elite levels, as he can resemble James Harden at times.
Now, on a Cavs team loaded with scorers, Waiters' potential is quickly fading in the shadow of his star teammates.
Can the Cavaliers better utilize their former lottery pick, or is it time to cut ties with Waiters?
Struggling to Fit In
Waiters was given the starting shooting guard position to begin the season, although it seemed like a questionable fit at the time.
After all, Waiters was benched because he and Irving couldn't share a basketball. How was this supposed to improve now beside Irving, LeBron James and Kevin Love?
Needless to say, this experiment was short-lived. After averaging just 8.3 points and one assist in 30.5 minutes, Waiters was moved to the bench following the Cavs' third game.
Having previously been giving free rein of the offense at times, Waiters is now forced to come off screens and transform his style into a more catch-and-shoot oriented game.
As was expected, Waiters admitted the change has been a difficult one for him, per Will Burge of CleveScene.com:
I went from having the ball in my hands a lot last year to really not having it. So when I do get it I just have to be efficient when I do get those opportunities. I’m an aggressive player; I’m always in attack mode but sometimes it's kind of hard when you’re really not in a rhythm.
While it was expected that his scoring would drop, even Waiters' assists and efficiency stats have taken a hit.
Here's how Waiters' numbers stack up from his first two years compared to this season:
Although he's being placed in a new role, Waiters is still fighting old habits.
Cleveland needs Waiters to become a catch-and-shoot off guard, something that he has been putting work in after practice to become. Despite this, he had an eye-opening exchange with Jason Lloyd of the Akron Beacon Journal:
So when Waiters stayed behind after the team’s morning shootaround Tuesday and worked out for another 40 minutes, after the bus and rest of the players were long gone, it wasn’t surprising to watch him working primarily on catch-and-shoot 3-pointers. Yet when I asked him about focusing on that this season, he dismissed it.
'That’s not my game,' he said. 'I can do it, but you know what I’m effective at: pick-and-roll and things like that.'
The problem is, the Cavs can't afford to sit around and wait for Waiters to take his man off the dribble anymore. This may have been OK under Mike Brown last season, but it isn't going to fly with James, Love and Irving standing around watching.
Truly Buying In?
So has Waiters really bought into what the Cavaliers need him to do, or is he just going through the motions?
Consider this: Despite his impressive scoring ability, the Cavs offense has actually been better this season when Waiters is out of the game.
Cleveland is averaging 112.6 points per 100 possessions with Waiters on the bench, compared to 110.7 with him in the game, according to 82games.com. In the only game Waiters missed this season, the Cavaliers scored 118 points in a Nov. 10 win over the New Orleans Pelicans. Rookie Joe Harris and veteran Mike Miller have both stepped up in Waiters' absence.
When it comes to those crucial catch-and-shoot situations the Cavs need, Waiters has disappointed big-time.
Despite drawing consistent open looks playing next to James, Love and Irving, Waiters is shooting a paltry 25 percent off catch-and-shoot opportunities, per NBA.com/Stats. When launching from behind the three-point line, this success rate drops to 23.1 percent.
When discussing those old habits, it's important to look at how Waiters is taking his shots.
Even though the Cavs want Waiters to become a catch-and-shoot guy, he's still relying on a pull-up game far too often (34.8 percent of shots compared to 26.7 percent).
Cleveland's rotations haven't required Waiters to put up big numbers, either. Coach David Blatt often pulls Irving with a few minutes remaining in the first quarter, putting Waiters on the court with James and Love. When the first quarter ends, Blatt typically pulls both James and Love and brings Irving back from the bench, allowing him to run the offense with Waiters once again being forced to play off the ball.
Waiters and the new-look Cavaliers just aren't meshing like many hoped they would.
Is it finally time to part ways?
Waiters' present isn't going too smoothly, but it's his future that's really cause for concern.
The third-year guard is eligible for restricted free agency after next season. The Cavaliers already have $120 million tied up in Irving and Anderson Varejao, with James and Love expected to each sign $100-plus million extensions as well. Tristan Thompson will be a restricted free agent this offseason and could receive around $50 million over four years.
So where does Waiters fit into the salary cap?
Currently, it's tough to tell.
If Waiters was on a rebuilding team like the Philadelphia 76ers, he would likely start and average 17-plus points a game. Such production would bring a healthy payday, easily over $10 million per year.
That being said, how much is he worth with the Cavs?
The going rate for a reserve shooting guard averaging less than 10 points on sub-40 percent shooting surprisingly isn't that high. Los Angeles Clippers' reserve guard Jamal Crawford, a two-time Sixth Man of the Year, is making just $5.5 million this season while averaging 17.7 points.
There's no way, given Waiters' current production, that Cleveland should offer more than $5 million per year, a figure that his camp will certainly not be pleased with. Neither side holds much leverage. The Cavaliers have been better offensively with Waiters on the bench, and the current makeup of the team isn't doing Waiters any favors, either.
If Blatt can't find a better way to work Waiters into the rotation, his potential will be wasted. With sharpshooters like Miller, James Jones and Harris looking for more playing time, could the Cavs actually be better without Waiters in the lineup?
Cleveland has a difficult decision to make. Waiters isn't getting it done in his current role.
A mutual parting may be best for both parties involved.
Greg Swartz has covered the Cleveland Cavaliers for Bleacher Report since 2010.
All stats provided by Basketball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.