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Dion Waiters: Is the Emergency Over?

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Has Dion Waiters transformed from Thunder liability to key playoff performer?

Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

As both a hype man and critic of Dion Waiters, I feel it my duty to revisit the most controversial man in Oklahoma City not named Kyle or Randy.

In January, I deemed him an "emergency" of historic proportions, an albatross for any legitimate title contender. A the time, he was dragging the Thunder down with a horrifying -2.9 box plus/minus while playing 27 minutes a night (fourth most on the team).

Fast forward to the Oklahoma City Thunder’s brutalizing of the Dallas Mavericks in the first round of the playoffs, and you’ll notice Waiters performing as well as any role player in the postseason. He scored an efficient 11 points per game, shooting 40 percent from three and 46 percent overall (scorching by Waiters’ standards). He also contributed on defense, holding his man to 6 percent below the average field goal percentage.

Has the emergency subsided?

Has Dion transformed from liability to key playoff performer? That’s still unlikely. His small sample size is even more skewed, as his feast came against a bad team with bad perimeter athleticism and very bad rim protection.

But the blueprint for a better, more consistent Dion was laying around Oklahoma City before the playoffs began. Waiters improved mightily down the stretch of the regular season, lifting his box plus/minus to -2.1 while outperforming the "anyone but Waiters" mob of Cameron Payne, Randy Foye, and Kyle Singler. The formula for Good Waiters is simple: better shot selection. In fact, his best stretch of the season came immediately after that "Emergency" piece was published.

Good Dion (Playoffs Dion?) is a product of better shot selection, not an unsustainably hot shooting streak. Waiters went 1-for-9 in the opener, and only shot better than 50 percent in two of the five games against Dallas. He only finished at a 50 percent clip at the rim in the series, good for him but merely league average. On the season, he shot a career-worst 39.9 percent from the floor while converting 35.7 percent from deep—significantly better than his 33.4 percent career average but not wildly so. He averted a typically abysmal season thanks almost exclusively to his two-point shot attempts decreasing. He took 3.3 fewer two-pointers per 36 minutes in 2015-16 than his career average, while throwing up about as many threes as always (4.0 per 36).

So far in the playoffs, his commitment to taking better shots has only intensified. His first career playoff shot was a clanked stepback (of course) in Game 1, but his trademark midrange move was noticeably absent for the rest of the series. Outside of a garbage-time pull, Waiters only took one other midrange jumper for the series, period. And the two-pointer/three-pointer split has become a chasm for Waiters; he’s taking roughly the same amount of total shots per-36, but only 4.4 are from two-point range and a whopping 6.8 are from distance.

Sacrifice

Until Dion can improve as a finisher or volume shooter, less is more. We’re not witnessing Dion grow into the player he envisioned becoming, but we are seeing him play smarter as the stakes are raised. Credit him and the coaching staff for a promising start in the first round, but the Thunder’s coming opponent(s) will be a truer test of his decision-making. Lining up to shoot over Raymond Felton and Devin Harris is one thing, facing down Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard from behind the arc is another thing entirely.

We’ll know soon if Dion’s improvement was just the latest of the many brief stretches he’s teased us with decent play, a byproduct of a woefully overmatched opponent, or a reasonably sustainable style of play that can help the Thunder more than it hurts. Since the change has occurred mostly between the ears—not in his shooting stroke—Thunder fans should be disappointed if it doesn’t hold up.