Context always, always matters in basketball. A player’s overall ability is never the sole attribute that will decide his effectiveness; role, fit, comfort, and so many other aspects outside of an individual’s control influences player performance almost as much as anything else. And despite having been traded from the Cleveland Cavaliers to Oklahoma City Thunder just two weeks ago, Dion Waiters is already grasping that reality.
Following his team’s utterly dominant win over the Orlando Magic yesterday, the talented but mercurial guard stressed just how fortunate he is to be playing for the Thunder. Via ESPN’s Michael Wallace:
“It’s a great situation for me,” said Waiters, who had 16 points off the bench Sunday as one of seven Thunder players to score in double figures. “I get to play my game, and that is what it’s about: being able to play and not having to look over your shoulder. It fits my style. They are giving me the ball. They want you to be successful. I came into a great situation.”
There’s definitely some indirect shade being thrown Cleveland’s way here. Waiters’ minutes fluctuated on a game-to-game basis this season under David Blatt, and the team constantly stressed need for the shot-happy third-year pro to play a more structured brand of offense.
Oklahoma City, on the other hand, has afforded Waiters freedom and playing time that placates his desire to be a playmaking focal point. He’s scored at least 15 points in each of his past four games while attempting a typically aggressive 16.7 shots per-36 minutes.
Of especially encouraging note is that Waiters is thriving alongside Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, something that couldn’t be said of his time playing with LeBron James and Kyrie Irving. The Westbrook-Waiters-Durant grouping has a +21.6 net rating – with offensive and defensive efficiencies of 111.5 and 89.9, respectively – in 64 minutes since the trade, the best number of Scott Brooks’ eight most utilized trios over that timeframe. And while a portion of that impressive mark was compiled in Sunday’s laugher versus Orlando, the eye-test supports it – Oklahoma City is playing at a breakneck pace while sharing the ball and pressuring defensively when Waiters shares the floor with its two superstars.
The importance of these early returns can’t be discounted. We assumed that Waiters would be no happier playing an ancillary role with the Thunder similar to the one he did as a Cavalier, but that hasn’t been the case from multiple perspectives. Brooks has been comfortable allowing Waiters to embrace his natural basketball id as a ball-dominator, and even played the Syracuse product 31 or more minutes twice already – half as many such outings as Waiters notched in 33 contests with Cleveland.
Waiters and Oklahoma City are still in the honeymoon phase, of course. There will likely come a time when Brooks doesn’t play him as many minutes or chastises him for shot-selection, and we’ll find out much more about the viability of this optimism depending on Waiters’ reaction.
But considering his oft-volatile nature in Cleveland, Waiters’ early happiness with the Thunder deserves special attention. And if it continues for the season’s remainder, he’ll have likely emerged as a key reserve cog for Oklahoma City as it’s made its way up the Western Conference ranks.
What do you think?
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