Will the positivity with Dion Waiters in OKC continue, or will this experiment implode?
A few weeks ago Sam Presti’s management made headlines after the questionable, perhaps desperate, acquisition of Dion Waiters from the Cleveland Cavaliers. A capable scorer, Waiters is nevertheless a head case—missing national anthems, believing he’s better than perennial all-stars, and (reportedly/allegedly/maybe) getting into locker room fights. Well, so far none of this has happened in Oklahoma. He’s been pretty good, but there are still questions. Let’s look at two samples and see if we can get a handle on this dude.
Sample One: There was a moment last night in the Oklahoma City Thunder’s dismantling of the Orlando Magic when Russell Westbrook lobbed a pass to Kevin Durant, who was posting up the 6’4”—or 6’6” if you count his hair—Elfrid Payton. By all accounts, there come to mind very few shots a team might rather have than Kevin Durant shooting over Elfrid Payton. Maybe Kevin Durant shooting over Nate Robinson, but maybe Nate Robinson’s tiny frame would actually throw Durant off. Anyway, so Durant gets the ball and (I think) nails the jumper. It was a predictable, desirable, sustainable shot. The kind of mismatch Scott Brooks wants his team to get routinely.
At the top of the key, though, at the moment Westbrook was airing up that pass, you could see Dion Waiters flailing like a madman asking for the ball. Waiters had made his first four shots of the night and seemed on track for a few heat-checks, at least three.
This is the kind of thing that makes me wonder whether Waiters is a viable fit for the Thunder. Spearheaded by the humility of Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City hinges on sacrifice. That’s why James Harden isn’t here. That’s why Durant and Westbrook play well together. Don’t hear me saying it’s all bubbles and sunshine—there are certainly conflicts, and there is certainly a question of whether this is a workable system, and there is the looming question of the ownership and all that politics, but on a basketball level this team is trying to make itself about sacrifice. Is Dion Waiters ready to sacrifice a heat-check for a Durant post-up of Elfrid Payton? If he’s not ready to give that shot away from a teammate, we should ask questions.
Sample Two: Later in that same game, and the Thunder pretty much have the whole thing under wraps. A few substitutes are playing. Fans in Orlando have vacated the arena like the exodus of the children of Israel. The announcers are trying to find things to say to use up time. And Dion Waiters is in the ball game.
Now, if there was ever a time for Dion Waiters to try to pad his stats, to get up a handful of more shots and try to be really fancy and not be judged for it—right now would be that time. Nobody would care, really. A few hardcore Thunder fans might. Some Cleveland fans might say, “Look! We told you so!” But most people would just chalk it up to scrub time. Instead, as Dion Waiters drives toward the basket after a pick-and-roll, instead of throwing up a Reggie Jackson-esque circus layup, he deftly trickles the ball between two defenders to the lumbering body of Nick Collison, who, seemingly in slow motion, gently deposits the rock in the basket. Very easy, gentle play.
Last night, Waiters was incredibly shrewd with the basketball. In 21 minutes he went 7-9 from the field. He was 1-2 from beyond the arc with 2 assists and 2 steals. Look, he’s not going to be the next Steve Nash or anything. He’s a scorer. That’s what he does: shoots silly long two-pointers, carries the ball but avoids being called for it, etc. He’s a scorer. But if he shows the prudence he did last night, and if he’s ready to make more plays like passing it to Nick Collison, and if he avoids telling the media he thinks he’s better than Russell Westbrook, then maybe this Dion Waiters thing will work out perfectly for the Thunder.