Dion Waiters has had a roller coaster of a career since entering the league in 2012, but was instrumental to the Oklahoma City Thunder's deep playoff run this past summer. Acting as an offensive catalyst off the bench as well as a surprise defensive stopper against post players, he was a large part of why the team even had a 3-1 series over the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference Finals.
Throughout that 7-game series, Dion Waiters was a consistent weather-vane. He scored at least 10 points in every Thunder win and less than 10 points in every Thunder loss. Unfortunately, he wasn’t quite effective enough when it counted most, as OKC lost in game 7.
Since being drafted 4th overall in 2012 by the Cleveland Cavaliers, Waiters has been a punching bag for social media and NBA reporters almost on a game-by-game basis, while his successes are treated as aberrations. Up and down, up and down. No one ever knows what they're going to get with this guy, on and off the court, thus earning him the nickname “Waiters Island.” But through it all, and in the midst of personal tragedy, Dion persisted, paving the way for a promising outlook for the first time in his career, and Waiters eschewed more lucrative offers and will suit up for Pat Riley, Erik Spoelstra, and the Miami Heat next season.
All that said, this post is not actually about Dion Waiters. This post is about who will be this current year's Dion Waiters for the Oklahoma City Thunder. In other words, who will be the guy that fans and beat writers frustratingly disagree whether he is worth the investment on a nightly basis, only to find his purpose and value when it matters most? With Kevin Durant now suiting up for the Warriors, there will be plenty of opportunity.
Who are the candidates for Waiters Island 2.0?
First up we have Russell Westbrook. He is already maligned by much of the media after every game in which he takes too many shots, or turns the ball over at a key moment during his ‘hero ball’ forays, and his feelings towards them are often mutual. But this is Westbrook's team now. He is going to be expected to take too many shots. Westbrook may in turn end up being given a pass by a lot of the media this season after losing the Batman-to-his-Robin in Kevin Durant this summer. Russell Westbrook is Batman now.
Ersan Ilyasova and his $8.4 million price tag came over as a part of the Thunder’s draft night deal with Orlando which sent Serge Ibaka to the Magic. He will be asked to cover the many different holes throughout the year that the Thunder have at the forward spot, and with both Durant and Ibaka elsewhere, the holes are many.
Ilyasova, 6-foot-10, is a career 37.0% 3-point shooter. The Thunder will be searching for perimeter shooting all season long while transitioning away from the offense the team used to run with Durant, and Ilyasova is being sold as a prototype stretch-4 with better shooting consistency than Ibaka. He may not be the defender that Ibaka was during his seven years in OKC, and this could cause some fans as well as some media members to react negatively to “The Turkish Hammer.” Hopefully he won’t try to elbow Manu Ginobli while in-bounding the ball in a playoff game. However, if his shooting falters, Thunder fans may start to second guess Sam Presti’s deal to bring Ilyasova into the fold.
Kyle Singler was signed to a five-year $25 million dollar deal by the Thunder in July 2015. His play has steadily declined since being traded to Oklahoma City from Detroit. It is difficult to predict that Singler will become the real estate that is Waiters Island 2.0 because he may never find his own niche in the Thunder offense (or defense, for that matter).
Singler and Waiters each have had approximately 1.5 seasons with Oklahoma City, as both were acquired via trade mid-season. However, Singler was given the long term deal while Waiters was not; what did Presti see in him that has not yet manifested? Singler will have to up his field goal percentage to match Waiters' production during his time with the Thunder, and even that statement is comical because Dion’s shooting woes were considerable during the regular season. Singler will also have to almost triple his points-per-game production to give the Thunder the offensive bump that Waiters once did. He has a better plus/minus than Waiters, but it is not by much.
This is a very realistic Waiters Island 2.0 scenario in the sense that the numbers are almost identical between Kyle Singler and Dion Waiters, but Singler has yet to really prove that he can stay on the same court as the high octane Westbrook-run offense. And with the loss of Durant, he might have to shoulder more responsibility at small forward and that is not something anyone wants.
What about newly-acquired shooting guard Victor Oladipo? The Thunder traded for Oladipo on the night of the 2016 NBA Draft. Oladipo is an immediate upgrade at the 2-guard for the Thunder, only 24 years old, and primed to make the leap. He shot a career-best 35 percent on 3-pointers with the Magic last season, and he may improve even more in that area of his game, which the Thunder will need now more than ever.
Why ‘Dipo may become this season’s Waiters is, with all the excitement of a new toy for second-year coach Billy Donovan to play with, there will be a fair share of headaches. According to basketball-reference.com, Oladipo has averaged .431 FG%, .339 3P%, and 17.2 points per 36 minutes since joining the league in 2013.
These numbers lean dangerously towards Oladipo being very similar to the production Waiters has averaged over the course of his career, but with even more minutes and participation in the offense. How will Oladipo respond when he has fewer opportunities to score, but is expected to produce more effectively when he has them? Will he come through for the Thunder when it matters, or will he be a ghost when Westbrook & Co. need him most?
Who will be the next Dion Waiters for the Oklahoma City Thunder? And when will Thunder fans come up with as good of a nickname as ‘Waiters Island’ for whoever earns this badge of honor?
Darian Hutchins is a new addition to the Welcome To Loud City staff, hoping to bring a new voice to the site while honing his craft of writing and reporting on basketball. Follow him on Twitter @DarianHutchins.