It all started when Waiters got picked 4th overall in the draft, much to the chagrin of NBA fans. People have blasted his low shooting splits, basketball IQ, draft position, ball-dominant style, defense, and questionable fit with Kyrie Irving since day 1.
While he still falls asleep on defense, can hold the ball for too long, could raise his free throw percentage, and become a better off-ball player, he has made significant strides and doesn’t deserve nearly the amount of criticism he receives.
There also seems to be this idea that Waiters is the root of the Cavs’ problems. That somehow trading Waiters will solve the dearth of talent on the team. Or getting rid of him will add adequate basketball tactics to Mike Brown’s mind.
I love Waiters’ game, and because of that I took it upon myself to debunk the Dion-hate that runs rampant around the NBA blogosphere.
The most popular Waiters criticism is the idea that he’s an unconscionable gunner who just launches errant 20-footers.
While he shoots a good deal of mid-range jumpers, he’s actually pretty decent at it.
Last season Waiters shot 40.1% from mid-range– ranking 44th among the 88 guards who shot 100 times from that distance. This season, he’s raised that mark to 43.1%.
The most impressive improvement has been Waiters’ three-point shooting, which has jumped from 31% to 36.6%– essentially a jump from “leave that guy alone” to “need to get a hand in his face”.
These aren’t flukey numbers. Waiters has become a better shooter by correcting his form, and controlling his body better on shot attempts. Last season he would fade, and it often looked like his legs, torso, and arms were each trying to execute a different type of shot; this season, while his jumper can still improve, and needs to be more consistent, its been a much more fluid motion.
Of the 108 players who’ve played 20 or more games, attempting three catch-and-shoot attempts per game, Waiters is 29th with a 59.2 eFG%– 0.2% behind Klay Thompson.
His worst outside shooting stat is his pull-up jump shooting, where he ranks 58th of 84 players who’ve played 20 or more games and attempt three or more jump shots per game.
At age 22, he is a below-average pull-up shooter and an above average set-shooter. Once he commits himself to his shooting fundamentals he often abandons when he goes off-the-dribble, his jump shooting will sky-rocket as well. There is nothing egregious about his shooting.
Player A: 38.7% eFG on jump shots; 59.5% eFG on catch-and-shoot
Player B: 37.8% eFG on jump shots; 56.4% eFG on catch-and-shoot
Player A is Waiters; Player B is Bradley Beal. As a shooter, Waiters has been unequivocally better than Beal this season. Not so bad for a second-year pro.
As far as “long, errant 2s” go, I think he’s doing pretty well for himself. Right now, he’s ranked 7th of 34 guards who have attempted 100 shots between 16-24 feet in shooting percentage at 45.5%– one spot above Tony Parker. Hate on long 2s all you want, hate on him taking long 2s, but just understand he is really good at long 2s.
The difference between Waiters and the average guard is Waiters’ free throw shooting (67.6%, down from 74.6% last season) and finishing ability (35.4% on drives; 46% in restricted area; 23% on other paint attempts).
While his long-2s still garner most of the hate, his poor shooting percentage at the rim has killed his field goal percentage and opened up his driving game to a great deal of hate, too.
Waiters is 14th in drives per game this season, at 7.4. He’s third (or fourth, depending on how you view the Eric Bledsoe/Goran Dragic duo) amongst all shooting guards.
His 35.4% shooting on drives ties him with Luol Deng (WTF?!?!? Not even getting into this…) at 107th of 117 players who have driven at least 90 times this season, and logged at least 25 games.
Even worse, his shooting percentage in the restricted area has gone down from 50.9% to 46% since last season.
This is where our analysis of his game usually stops, which results in a lazy interpretation of Neon Dion.
The Cavaliers’ front court has managed to dodge blame for Waiters’ poor percentage, and high turnover rate. Justice needs to be served.
Here’s a quick summary of what’s going on in their front court:
Tristan Thompson can’t shoot. His change to the right hand was great. The fact he has something more than a push-shot, he is hitting his free throws at a higher clip, and his growing comfort with his awkward jumper are all huge pluses. Still, he’s far from average, and I think his smile and work-ethic somehow convinced people he’s a good shooter.
For one, people don’t guard him on mid-range shots. Secondly, he’s not a good mid-range shooter. That’s really all there is to say.
His front court mate, Anderson Varejao, has been lights out from mid-range (45.3%– tops among centers who’ve attempted 75 mid-range jumpers). Despite that, he is still visibly reluctant to let it fly, and teams don’t respect his jumper the same way they would a jumper coming from David West, someone shooting slightly worse than Varejao from mid-range. Some of this has to do with Varejao’s limited range, some of it is lack of fluidity, some of it is his track-record, and some of it is his own visible insecurity about his shot.
The two-headed monster of Earl Clark and Alonzo Gee were no help at small forward. While Luol Deng is an upgrade over those two, he’s still a sub-par shooter.
Obviously Bynum did not help as a shooter; Zeller is solid, but his shooting ability hasn’t commanded respect because in the short minutes he’s logged, he hasn’t aggressively pursued his opportunities– often times he won’t even look at the basket when he’s uncovered from 17 feet.
(Anthony Bennett… I will not speak on him. He’s been doing well recently! Progress!)
The closest thing the Cavs have had to a front court player who can legitimately stretch the floor was Clark when he got hot for a couple weeks in December. For a while he was sitting at +40% from deep, and that helped ignite the bench. Mike Brown, being the rotation virtuoso we all love, moved him to starting small forward, and it all turned to ashes. Clark’s 34.8% from three and 37.4% overall shooting from the field is all that remain from the golden age of the Cavaliers post-LeBron era.
The Cavaliers have the worst front court shooting of any team in the NBA, period.
Because they are the Cavaliers, that’s not the only reason their front court has provided the worst spacing of any team in the NBA.
There is a good amount of dangerous front court players who can’t shoot, but make up for their deficiencies as a shooter with ball-handling, passing, post-play, athleticism, and/or basic court-vision. Blake Griffin and Josh Smith (when he’s aggressive, and playing like the Smith we love) are great examples of mediocre (Smith’s case atrocious) outside shooter who can create space for teammates by penetrating, drawing double-teams in the post, and pushing the ball in transition– not many defenses can successfully contain the opposing 4-man going coast-to-coast without being forced into an ugly mismatch.
(It should also be noted that non-shooters typically, and ideally, play next to guys who can shoot.)
Thompson, Clark, Bennett, Gee, Zeller, and Bynum have not exhibited any talent to leverage poor shooting. Deng has even seemed a bit confounded by the lack of fluidity and spacing, which has yielded meh results.
Varejao is really good at creating off the bounce, and seeing the floor. But he’s the only front court player whose overall output has consistently augmented the success of other players on the floor. Because of that, Varejao and Waiters have actually formed a very formidable duo– posting a whopping (by Cavs standards) 3.6 net rating. Varejao compliments everyone, but his two-man game with Waiters is one of the few things this team produces that can be fun to watch.
This is the same spacing, by the way, that contributed to Bynum, who was almost headed to China, basically saying “screw making $6.5 million and being able to showcase my talent for the rest of the year, I can’t take this shit anymore”, going rogue, and razing his relationship with the team in a few short months.
These are the players who are supposed to supplement Waiters’ talents!
To highlight how bad these front court guys have been, this team’s best front court player for chemistry purposes since Kyrie joining the team, other than Varejao, has been Luke Walton. Waiters, Kyrie, everyone was significantly better with him on the floor playing power forward, simply because he knew what he was doing. HE’S LUKE WALTON! HE’S NOT EVEN IN THE LEAGUE! HE WAS PLANTING THE SEEDS FOR HIS COACHING CAREER DURING THE LOCKOUT BECAUSE HE WAS SO BAD! YET, HE LOOKED LIKE A GOD-SEND COMPARED TO THOMPSON! THAT’S HOW POORLY CLARK, THOMPSON, BYNUM, AND GEE FIT WITH THIS TEAM’S STRENGHTS!
Excuse me, got kinda carried away there.
Of the top-50 players in drives per game (Waiters ranks 14th), he is 37th in field goal attempts inside of 8-feet per game. This is indicative of three things: 1. he’s not forcing shots in the paint; 2. he’s cognizant of his poor shooting; 3. he’s passing the ball when he gets into the lane way more than the average shooting guard.
Eleven of the thirteen players behind him in the stat I just mentioned– Jameer Nelson, Mario Chalmers, Ricky Rubio, Stephen Curry, Raymond Felton, Kyle Lowry, Chris Paul, D.J. Augustin, Jordan Crawford, Will Bynum, Trey Burke, Deron Williams, Paul Pierce– are pass-first point guards. That’s the type of penetrator he’s been this season– a poor finisher who has become reluctant to finish the majority of his drives.
The problem for Waiters is as much his questionable decision-making as it is him playing with the worst crop of big man finishers in the league.
Thompson’s 51.4% shooting in the restricted area ranks 55th of 56 forwards with 80+ attempts from there on the season; Anderson Varejao ranks 21st of 24 centers who’ve attempted 80+ in the restricted area, with a conversion rate of 54.9%.
Basically, when Waiters drives, gets into the teeth of the defense, and makes the adjustment to pass instead of taking a low-percentage attempt, his dump-off options are the worst in the NBA.
His kick-out options have been pretty awful as well, for the most part.
Kyrie has been awful off the catch, shooting 30.3% from three– worse than Kawhi Leonard, slightly better than Draymond Green; Deng’s at 28.6%; there is no point in even mentioning Clark, Bennett, and Gee here.
The only reliable set-shooters surrounding him have been C.J. Miles, Jarrett Jack, and Matthew Dellavedova. The problem with Jack is he takes the ball out of Waiters’ hands, and given the way he plays, it’s obvious he laments playing off-ball.
Since Dellavedova seldom plays at all, especially in lineups with Waiters and without Jack, Miles has been the lone guy consistently camping out on the perimeter, allowing Waiters do what he does best. But more on this guard fiasco later…
(MAYBE THIS IS WHY KYRIE AND WAITERS TAKE A LOT OF JUMP SHOTS! MAYBE! NOT THE SMARTEST MAN IN THE WORLD, BUT IT COULD PLAY A SMALL ROLE!)
There are things Waiters could do to improve his conversion rate in the paint, and become an overall more efficient driver. The biggest, and simplest improvement would be strengthening his left-hand finishing. The more advanced improvements would be starting to use more jump stops and pump fakes, and adding a good floater (his current one is pretty awful). He would also benefit from probing. These are some things Ty Lawson and other guards operating in compromised space do to thwart their team’s shortcomings. These things come with time, though. That’s why it’s ludicrous to blame Waiters for not possessing these qualities. He turned 22-years old two months ago!
Maybe, instead of blaming him for not having the artifice of a veteran who has been navigating seas of intelligent defenses for years under tutelage of top-notch coaches and veterans, we should take a gander at his surroundings.
Any player, especially one in his second year, is generally as good as his context allows him to be. In this context, from a pure talent standpoint, there is no wonder why Waiters is struggling.
Eric Bledsoe is a guy who was in a situation much like Waiters’ last season. Just by getting out of Vinny Del Negro’s hideous, crunched offense, and moving to an up-tempo, outside shooting team, Bledsoe improved his shooting <8ft by 11% in one season. That’s not to undermine any hard work Bledsoe did over summer to improve his game, but that big of a statistical jump is at least partially due to the change in strategy and personnel.
It’s very possible Waiters saw his shooting percentage decrease by virtue of losing Walton and, as much as it pains me to say this… *sigh* Byron Scott. Kyrie has experienced a similar drop-off in paint efficiency from year-to year: 55.9% in 11-12; 52.5% in 12-13; and 51.9% this season. His overall shooting percentages have dropped, too (46.9 to 45.2, 42.6). This is in all likelihood a result of supplanting Thompson for Antawn Jamison, and Brown for Scott.
Since his name is in my mouth, it’s about time I factor in the inscrutable Mike Brown who adds his own unique elements to drag Waiters down on a team, that in the eyes of a penetrator, looks like the result of a nefarious underground drag racing league in Atlanta during winter.
I mentioned two reliable set-shooters– Miles and Dellavedova– who are willing to play off of Waiters. Those are his ideal wing mates. Two guys who don’t need the ball in their hands to be effective, who can spread the floor for him, and knock down open shots on kick-out opportunities.
In the time Waiters has spent on the court with Dellavedova, the team has a +7.7 net rating; in the time Waiters spends with Miles, the team has a +6.6 net rating; when all three share the floor, the team has a +33.6 net rating.
The problem is Coach Brown has played those lineups for 321, 203, and 58 minutes respectively.
The aggregate total of those lineups still falls 89 minutes short of the amount of time the Waiters-Jack pairing has played this season. A lineup that has recorded a -3.9 net rating, and is only so high because of the times Waiters says “screw you” to Jack, takes the decision-making duties over, and forces Jack to play off of him.
The point is, although the Cavs don’t have many guys to augment Waiters’ abilities, they still exist. They just don’t play. The fact that Jack plays over them confounds me to this day, but that’s Brown logic.
His inability to structure a rotation, design sets, and control a locker room has lead to the idea that’s now synonymous with the Cavaliers– that Irving and Waiters can’t play together.
Irving and Waiters
There exists this idea that Irving and Waiters will never be able to work together because they are both ball-dominant players.
While there is typically a struggle for both of them to gain a rhythm playing next to each other, this chemistry problem has been completely overblown.
I would like to tell you a love story about two guys who met in Phoenix. One is named Dragic, the other Bledsoe. People didn’t know how they would mesh; both are ball-dominant, slashing point guards! It’ll never work! But with a touch of Disney magic by Phoenix coaching, the pairing is taking the league by storm.
First, the Suns did staggered their minutes– allowing each player to command his own units for nice chunks of the game.
The second thing they did was implement a run-n-gun system, and filled the roster with players who fit a full court style of play. This allowed Dragic and Bledsoe, two open court, slashing players, to not spend too much time in typical half court settings that would force one of them to act as more of a traditional shooting guard. This is also the easiest way to get easy looks for guys who are fantastic in transition, with a full head of steam, attacking the basket.
The third thing they did was ensure 4/5 players on the court could shoot the ball! Slashers need space! The Suns gave each of them breathing room so they could comfortably do what they do best.
Right now, the Cavs are staggering minutes, and that’s it.
Staggering their minutes was the first step in learning how to use both of these players on the same team. You can look at that as “they can’t play together, and the longer they are on their own, the better” or you can see it as a team keeping one legitimate playmaker on the court at all times. The Bulls did it with Scottie Pippen and Michael Jordan; the Heat do it with Wade and LeBron; the Warriors get grilled for not doing it with Andre Iguodala and Stephen Curry; the Suns do it with Dragic and Bledsoe. The list goes on.
Allowing each player to get hot, handle the ball, and be the guy with respective units is not only a great way to get each player into a rhythm, it’s also proven to be the smartest way to win games for a team with multiple ball-dominant playmakers. It’s been done before. It’s probably going to be done again.
The Cavs absolutely struck out when it comes to pushing the tempo. The dearth outside shooting, and lack of floor spacing of any kind surrounding the two has hurt their on-court production tremendously.
These are two simple changes that would improve their chemistry immediately, and they have nothing to do with either player.
If Kyrie ever raises his catch-and-shoot efficiency out of the gutter, this duo could be lethal. Since he is 21-years old, and an extremely talented shooter, my money is on him learning how to shoot with time to get his feet set. Right now, Waiters has proven to do that better than most players in this league. If Kyrie can reciprocate, Chris Grant’s dream might become a reality.
The funniest part about all of this is this duo, as flawed as this situation is, is that it has actually proven to be good recently, contrary to popular belief.
Since the Bynum departure, the Cavaliers are a net -7.2; Kyrie-Waiters lineups are a net -3.9 in 269 minutes together over the same span of time. The Cleveland Cavaliers have been better with Kyrie and Dion on the floor. Yes, as in they are a more productive team when Kyrie and Waiters share the floor.
There is certainly a correlation in their on-court chemistry to the rise in time spent with Varejao, the offensive focus panning away from force-feeds to the post, the general improvement Kyrie made after his early season slump, and Dion’s improvements as a shooter.
An even better statistic: the team has posted a +12.7(!!!) net rating in the 67 minutes Kyrie-Waiters-Miles have shared the floor; the 4-man group of Kyrie-Waiters-Miles-Varejao has posted a +34.3 net rating in 48 minutes! These are the optimal lineups that feature a legitimate, set-shooting, non ball-dominant wing, and heady big man to compliment Irving and Waiters! And they have been wildly successful! I understand this a very small sample size, but this has to give Cavs fans hope; it works logically, and has worked on paper.
But back to strictly Waiters and Kyrie. These guys have actually managed to play really well together, especially on the offensive end– where everyone rips them. They have mustered a 105.6 offensive rating in those 269 minutes, which would make them the ninth most efficient offense in the league. Unfortunately, they have surrendered a 109.5 defensive rating– well below the worst defense in the league.
Defensively, they both have a long way to go. They have both improved, however, and it’s not strange for young guards to struggle on that end of the floor. It certainly doesn’t help the two when nobody on the team plays transition defense, Waiters logs minutes at small forward, Jack plays, and the best rim-protector on the team is mediocre at best.
The two players still have a lot of kinks to work out together. By no means are they flawless little offensive angels, but doling the brunt of current Cavs pessimism, and pessimism about this team’s future, on the duo’s chemistry issues is a bit inane.
If you think their recent success has been flukey, you still have to expect them to build some sort of potential together, right? They are 22, and 21-years old respectively!… Forced to play under Mike Brown (for the next x-many games)!
Still, the hate lives on. There are still people who think the Cavs blew the fourth pick in the draft by selecting Waiters.
If you eliminate Drummond, who nobody was touching in the top-5 because of the variety of red flags surrounding him during the pre-draft process, Waiters was clearly the best player they could have chosen.
Lillard has been the most impactful, but there is no world where the Cavs draft him and play him behind Kyrie, given the holes on that roster coming into the draft.
Who should they have drafted over Waiters? Harrison Barnes? Terrence Ross? Thomas Robinson? Austin Rivers? Any argument suggesting the Cavs should have taken a different player with this pick, other than Drummond, is completely vacuous. In a re-draft, the latest Waiters goes is number five. He’s proven to have, without a doubt, the best combination of talent and potential of any player chosen in the draft not named Beal (I personally think Waiters is better, but understand and respect the case for Beal), Drummond, Lillard (there is an argument that Waiters has more potential), and Anthony Davis.
Yet, to quote Jim Lahey, because Waiters was a surprise pick, and is caught in the perfect shit storm in shitville, all of his struggles and deficiencies are magnified.
He has plenty of things to clean up. His ability to finish, while not aided by his surroundings, needs to improve; he can get better as a shooter; he’s turnover-prone; his body language is poor; the ball sticks in his hands too much; and he needs to get better, and become consistent defensively off the ball (his on-ball defense still needs to improve, but isn’t nearly as bad).
The guy is 22-years old in his second season, playing for the most dysfunctional franchise in the league, and he makes his team better whenever he steps on the court. At the end of the day, that’s the most important thing about him. That seems to get lost amongst the fervent, league-wide criticism of his game.
Maybe we should take a second before we write his narrative.
All stats courtesy of NBA.com.