My bags are packed. My ticket is paid for. I have my sunscreen, my flip flops, my shades, and all the beach gear I could ever need. I am ready. Waiters Island, here I come!
Okay, okay, I should slow down. I sound too excited. After all, I’m the person who told you to not get your hopes up about the buyout market. I’m supposed to be the rational person who doesn’t get too high or too low. I’m the person... WHO IS ON HIS WAY TO WAITERS ISLAND.
Dammit. There I go again. Let’s regroup and back up some. Maybe it would be better to look at this with more clear eyes. Let’s start with...
The Case Against Waiters
There are plenty of reasons to steer clear of Dion Waiters if you’re the Lakers. For one, there’s actually not a defined role for him to step into. The roster spot Waiters would be filling was occupied by Troy Daniels, a bit role player. In the 58 games the Lakers played with Daniels on the roster, he only saw time in 41 of them. In those 41 games, he averaged only 11 minutes, and in his final 10 appearances he played fewer than 10 minutes seven times.
Essentially, Daniels, after finding real minutes early in the year, had become someone who, by the time he was released, only played under two circumstances: when injury forced deeper bench guys into the rotation, or if there were garbage time minutes available.
Would Waiters be open, long term, to stepping into this type of role? It’s one thing to say you are when interviewing and trying to make a good first impression. It’s another thing to keep buying into that idea after a month or two and, potentially, when adversity hits.
Understand, the most high-leverage minutes of the Lakers’ season are in front of them. When those situations come, and this team loses some games — particularly in the heat of the playoffs — that’s when this group’s resolve and togetherness will be most tested. That’s when players who want to play, but aren’t, are more likely to voice dissatisfaction or be a distraction. Will Waiters, if things go sideways while he languishes on the bench, be the good soldier? I think it’s a fair question.
There is a flip side to this, though. Let’s say Waiters comes on board under the premise that he will be in a larger role than the one that Daniels departed. There are simple logistical issues that come from this. After integrating Markieff Morris into the rotation, Frank Vogel is now fielding an 11-man rotation when everyone is healthy. Waiters would make 12.
How do you find minutes for that many players? Whose minutes get cut, and how do those players respond to having their roles reduced by a late-season addition to the roster? This team is made up of high-character veterans, but even the most professional of guys aren’t immune to having frustration seep in. There’s some forecasting here that needs to happen to ensure things will go smoothly on whatever end of the spectrum things fall.
Waiters also comes with baggage that goes beyond potential chemistry concerns from whatever his role ends up being. He has an extensive injury history and has not been healthy over the last four years. This season he’s played in only three games, due to injury recovery and team suspensions. And in the three full seasons before this one, his game totals are 43, 30, and 28 games — not great. As the old saying goes, the best ability is availability and Waiters hasn’t been available enough over the course of his career to really be deemed reliable.
Even if you’re signing Waiters with the intent of not having to rely on him, there’s a real argument to be made that his history of missing time could be disqualifying simply because, as a final roster spot guy, the thing you want is to be able to call on him if needed. If, for some reason, he can’t stay healthy or makes himself unavailable due to health — or any other reason — wouldn’t a safer option be desirable even if the ceiling isn’t as high?
So yeah. If you look at all the above and say ‘thanks, but no thanks’, I’d understand. I really do.
I just don’t agree because...
The Case for Waiters
The goal of roster construction is to build the best possible team from a talent perspective, while still considering key factors like how the pieces fit together — both from a skills and personality/chemistry standpoint. The Lakers have not assembled a perfect roster by any means, but Rob Pelinka and the front office have clearly taken this approach seriously and have done an excellent job in building out a strong roster that fits together and gets along really well.
And they’re pretty good, too. Just look at the standings.
The question should be, then, how does a potential Waiters addition fit into these ideas of talent and chemistry, and how much should the front office balance these two ideas when making a determination of whether adding Waiters is the right call?
On the talent side, Waiters fits in quite well, and is probably the best archetype of player available with the Lakers unable to secure a more pure point guard type. Waiters may not be the most efficient scorer, but the skills he brings to the table are ones the Lakers could use more of. He can create his own shot in isolation and in the pick and roll. He can create shots for others, and he can work as a spot up option. He can score at all three levels of the floor (paint, mid-range, behind the arc) and has the type of shot-making ability that can make even good defense inadequate.
The stats and tape back these things up, too.
Consider that in the 2018-19 season, Waiters shot 44.7% on shots classified as spot-ups, per NBA.com/stats. For players with at least 150 spot-up possessions, his 1.23 points scored on spot-ups ranked 10th in the NBA that year, tying him with Steph Curry.
In the pick and roll, Waiters isn’t as efficient as the top players in the league, but he’s a viable threat there, too. In the 2018-19 season he shot 46.6% when shooting as the ball-handler in the pick and roll, which ranked 26th in the NBA for players with at least 100 such possessions (for comparison’s sake, LeBron shoots 44.4% on such possessions this season). And while his 0.86 points per possession on such plays is by no means efficient, him being a threat at all (unlike any of the non-LeBron options on the Lakers now), could create the type of advantage needed to trigger more advanced options in the team’s half-court offense.
If looking at Waiters’ numbers as a playmaker, go back one season further to 2017-18, and Waiters ranked 7th in the NBA in drives per game, 2nd in passes off drives, and 5th in assists off drives. That’s another valuable element to offense that the Lakers — outside of LeBron — don’t really have right now.
Injuries have impacted his explosiveness and, with a limited sample size this season, it’s hard to know exactly where Waiters is physically, or whether his body would be ready to hold up over the course of a playoff run — particularly if he ends up being more than a part-time rotation player. That said, the skillset that Waiters possesses, and his ability to take some of the ball-handling and shot-creation load offensively would be a nice addition to this Lakers roster.
From a chemistry standpoint, my concerns are balanced against two key factors.
First, signing Waiters at all means that a few necessary steps have already taken place. Waiters will not be signed unless the coaches are convinced he truly is open to taking on whatever role they prescribe. They’ll surely have a plan for him, have already communicated that plan, and feel that he’ll not only buy-in initially but that they’ll be able to help maintain that buy-in.
This will also be true of both LeBron and Anthony Davis should Waiters be brought on. Rob Pelinka has made it clear that all major decisions involve consultations with his team’s best players and Waiters would be no different. If Waiters signs, those two guys have okayed it. This matters not only from the standpoint of they, themselves, having confidence they can make it work, but it will signal to the rest of the team that this is an idea worth embracing.
From Danny Green, to Quinn Cook, to Avery Bradley, to Jared Dudley, the role players on this team have all said that ‘Bron and AD are the undisputed leaders who set the tone and direction of the locker room. If they’re okay with this, I’d expect the rest of the guys to fall in line, even if they had some reservations of their own. Add in that one of this team’s biggest strengths has been their chemistry, and I find hard to believe that a single addition could disrupt everything they’ve built since they first started having summer workouts as a group.
Second, Waiters comes into this situation with pre-established relationships with key organizational figures already in hand. Rob Pelinka was Waiters’ agent before leaving his agency to become Lakers’ GM. Pelinka, presumably, has a strong connection with his former client, and surely has a good enough relationship to clearly communicate expectations.
Waiters’ current agent is Rich Paul, who also represents LeBron, AD, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Talen Horton-Tucker. Paul is not a member of the organization and will surely look out for his clients’ best interests first, but Paul has a vested interest in the Lakers’ success considering his sizable player investment with the team. One has to think Paul will be an ever-present figure to help keep this situation going smoothly.
So, if the talent is there and the chemistry concerns aren’t likely to fester to the point of real disruption — and, even if they did, Waiters could always be cut with little to no consequence — signing him would be a risk worth taking.
Of course, there’s no guarantee Waiters is brought on at all. There’s enough variables that could go sideways to give anyone pause, including me. But, if the Lakers do bring on anyone to fill their final roster spot, I would hope it’s Waiters. I think the combination of the strong infrastructure already in place with this group, and the upside of Waiters’ talent and skillset in an area of need make him the most desirable option out there.
Darius Soriano has covered the Lakers for 12 years at forumblueandgold.com, co-hosts the Laker Film Room podcast and writes a weekly column for Silver Screen and Roll. If you want to further support his work, you can do so at his Patreon. You can follow him on Twitter at @forumbluegold (just don’t ask him to change his avatar).