Editor’s Note: As the season gets closer, our Silver Screen and Roll staff is going to be taking a closer look back at every player on the Lakers for a refresher on stuff we may have forgotten during quarantine. Think of this as the 30-second clip reminding you of what happened during the current season of your favorite TV show that rolls right before the latest episode starts. Today, let’s recall what was up with Dion Waiters.
A popular parlor game on Twitter during the NBA’s hiatus has been special segments of “Who He Play For?” with players who switched teams at the trade deadline. And for those who changed locations after the buyout deadline on March 1, that game has been near impossible. Think about guys like Marvin Williams or Michael Kidd-Gilchrist — heck, even ESPN forgot that Joakim Noah had signed with the Clippers.
That’s why it would be perfectly forgivable for the most ardent Laker fan to forget that the team signed Dion Waiters back on March 6. If your memories of Waiters rocking the purple and gold are a little hazy, that’s because Waiters never actually suited up for the team. He was supposed to ease into being a Laker by playing with South Bay on March 13, but alas, possibly our only chance to see G League Dion was obviously canceled after the NBA season was.
Aside from appearing in street clothes on the bench for three Lakers games this season, it’s been an uneventful season for the former No. 4 pick, at least on the court. Waiters only played three games for the Miami Heat this season thanks to a series of questionable behavior decisions, including some social media outbursts and ill-timed edible consumption, moments that weren’t exactly in line with “Heat Culture.” He was subsequently traded to Memphis in the Andre Iguodala deal at the trade deadline, and the Grizzlies immediately waived Waiters, a bad sign for the 28-year-old considering that team was willing to hold on to Iguodala’s contract for months without the veteran reporting to Memphis.
As a result, Waiters wasn’t exactly the belle of the buyout market. He had also been shipped away from a LeBron James team once before in his career so that the Cavaliers could acquire the veteran presence of (checks notes) J.R. Smith — who was also a free agent the Lakers were interested in — so a union with the Lakers seemed improbable. However, Darren Collison elected to stay retired despite a full-court press from the Lakers brass; thus, an unlikely match was made.
Waiters theoretically fills a need on the Lakers roster as another capable ball-handler. His usage rate has always been above league average, even when he played in Cleveland alongside James and Kyrie Irving, and also in Oklahoma City when he shared the floor with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Unfortunately, that usage mostly goes into Waiters creating shots for himself. The man does not lack for confidence, but maybe sometimes he should.
But if we look back at his first game of the season against the Clippers — a useful data point considering who stands in the Lakers’ path to the NBA Finals — Waiters’ overall stat line looks pretty great: 14 points on 5-of-12 shooting, and Miami was +8 with him on the floor. Waiters does a good job of creating space and taking a deep three in rhythm with the defender too late to contest. These kinds of looks will be available to him playing next to James and Anthony Davis.
What the Lakers simply cannot tolerate is Waiters going off script, like when he elects to take another three early in the shot clock without running any offense and Kawhi Leonard’s abnormally large hand is right in his face. These shots have no place in a high-level offense, and Waiters needs to excise them from his decision-making.
To think that Waiters had the level of belief in himself — in his very first appearance of the season after being suspended multiple times — to waive off Jimmy Butler in crunch time causes a little concern as to how he might behave with the Lakers. James has previously taken personal responsibility for getting everyone in the locker room in line, and he has had Waiters under his tutelage before. But he sent Waiters packing then, and the stakes are higher now.
But despite his questionable shot selection and off-court issues that distracted from what he has the potential to bring, the Heat played really well this season in the limited sample when Waiters was on the floor. He shot 8-of-17 from the 3-point line and still retains the physicality to clear out space for himself beyond the arc. That size and strength serves him well on defense, where he can credibly defend twos and smaller threes.
Waiters’ athleticism has waned, and watching him drive is a bit painful at this point; he made two of the nine 2-pointers he attempted this season with the Heat, continuing a trend of being a perennially bad finisher at the rim and in the paint. And though he defended Leonard reasonably well in a Thunder-Spurs playoff series four years ago, those days appear to be behind him.
The Lakers have proven to be a championship-caliber team without Waiters in the fold. He is simply insurance, a potential spark-plug should the Lakers need an offensive jolt. Waiters has been that player in the past, and in 2020, he has shown flashes of being that player again. That’s all the Lakers need, and that’s all they should rely on Waiters to provide.