Before this Thunder season, I predicted that Dion Waiters could maybe, just maybe, be poised for a moderate breakout in 2015-16. The Year of the Dion, I said. This has become the year of Waiters, but not like I envisioned. I love the dude, and have been rooting for him since he was a rookie. But this season has confirmed what Cleveland believed when trading him to Oklahoma City: he doesn't belong in a championship contender's rotation.
Winning a ton of games behind stellar play from Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, as everyone is aware, hasn’t been enough to keep pace with the historically great seasons the Warriors and Spurs are putting together. Production from the shooting guard spot is constantly cited as one of the Thunder’s greatest weaknesses, something holding them back from reaching the West’s top tier. But the truth is, Waiters’ role with the team would be alarming in any season, regardless of the competition.
Dion has played over a season’s worth of games with the Thunder, fitting in with the locker room, shooting less, and appearing to genuinely try to fulfill the kind of role the team needs from him. Good intentions aside, he’s failed to ever "figure it out" beyond the occasional streak of two or three good games. Lots of folks are now wondering if he’s fatally flawed as an NBA player, a second coming of Jordan Crawford destined to light it up in China sooner than later. Crawford’s last NBA season (2013-14) was actually significantly better than this season has been for Waiters. Crawford averaged 11 points to Waiters’ 9.7, doing so in 23 minutes a game to Waiters’ 27. He shot better from the floor, dished out more assists, and had an ugly -1.8 box plus minus, compared to a grotesque -2.9 for Waiters this year. Crawford had his minutes per game cut to 9.8 for the Warriors in the playoffs, and hasn’t been on an NBA roster since. At this point, Waiters isn’t even Crawford.
Role and Player
Waiters is fourth in minutes for the Thunder, getting more run than Steven Adams, Enes Kanter, and Andre Roberson (whose knee sprain figures to exacerbate the Waiters problem), players who have had a much more positive effect on offense, defense, or both, than the Dion. The team’s offensive rating slips from 110.5 when he’s off the court to 108.2 when he’s on it, and their defense slides from a 98.2 rating to 102.6 when he checks in (from NBA Stats). The severity of those splits are less severe because Waiters sees so much time with the starters, subbing in early and closing out games alongside Durant, Westbrook, and Serge Ibaka (he has the most minutes in combos with each of any non-starter).
That ghastly box plus-minus stat is a better indicator of individual performance, and it’s damning. According to Basketball-Reference.com, over the last 10 seasons, no team has reached the conference finals with a player receiving top-5 minutes and a BPM below -2.5, with one exception: Udonis Haslem, who was almost as bad as Dion the year Miami beat OKC in the Finals. He had a -2.8 BPM while playing 24.8 minutes a night. Waiters would be the worst, most heavily featured rotation cog on a final-four team in at least a decade were the Thunder to exceed expectations and get that far.
The only Thunder players with as close to a negative impact on this year’s Thunder have been Kyle Singler and Mitch McGary, who together have played 765 fewer minutes than Waiters. Excluding McGary and Steve Novak (76 combined minutes all year), Waiters has the third-worst PER on the Thunder, the third-worst true shooting percentage, is second-worst in win shares, and very worst in value over replacement player. The only statistical categories where he approaches being even an average Thunder reserve are on the defensive side of the ball, which is moot because Roberson outclasses him in those categories anyway.
It's true that the occasional steady game from Waiters tends to not hurt the team, and the rare good game from him is some gravy that usually helps contribute to a win. That’s okay for the 10th guy off the bench—it's an unacceptably anemic goal for the sixth man on a contender. As the wins have stacked up and Billy Donavan has shuffled his rotations, shifting expectations have masked just how poorly Waiters has continued to play.
This is a crisis. You can’t give starters’ minutes to a player this bad.
And it’s a uniquely Thunderian crisis, because of their consistent (stubborn?) 2-guard philosophy. Donavan, like Scott Brooks before him, believes in starting a defense-only shooting guard like Roberson. But like his predecessor, Donavan does not believe in finishing games with said specialist, rather leaning on the offensive punch of a sixth man guard throughout most of the game. This has been the featured role for James Harden, Kevin Martin, Reggie Jackson, and now Waiters. When the Thunder acquired Waiters, they didn't want comparisons made to Harden. No one would have made any without the jersey number fiasco, and no one is silly enough to think the organization viewed Waiters as a Harden-level talent, two years removed from The Trade. But the team hasn't let go of the Harden role—an outsized sixth man who played starters’ minutes and closed out games with the stars. They did envision Waiters filling that role, immediately slotting him into it over Reggie Jackson, who had filled it quite nicely in his last stretch with the Thunder.
If this team wants to be its best with this roster, the shape of that role or the player in it must change. My irritation with Donavan's rotation choices has ebbed and flowed, but when it last peaked I made a simple point: the first step to improving your rotation should be playing the better players more than you play the worst players. Team philosophy must be overridden if the talent tanks the organization’s theories.
It's Time for a Change
Any trade talks should center on replacing Waiters' time. Any rotational tweaks should aim at Waiters’ minutes first and foremost. D.J. Augustin was swiftly replaced by rookie Cam Payne to much fanfare, but the Payne experiment should not end at backup point guard duties; it is more important to find out if the rookie can play alongside Westbrook in the backcourt. The reintroduction of Singler into the rotation should not first be about whether he's a better overall player than Anthony Morrow, or how he works in smaller lineups; it should first be about whether he can eat more of Waiters’ minutes at the 2.
If the Thunder manage to reach or come close to the Finals this season, the historic performance of the Durant/Westbrook duo will be rightfully praised. The anomaly of a player doing as poorly as Waiters in a huge role on an elite team would be nearly as remarkable. And if their title hopes evaporate early in the postseason? The plentiful, ignored evidence of his drain on the team's production will be just as incriminating for the franchise's roster choices as the Harden trade is now.