Coming into the 2014-15 season, the Cleveland Cavaliers had a clear, plausible best-case scenario in front of them.
LeBron would be LeBron, which would open up driving lanes for Kyrie Irving and easily exploitable one-on-one matchups for Kevin Love. A resurgent Anderson Varejao would protect the rim, grabbing a few offensive rebounds here and there for good measure.
And to cap it all off Dion Waiters — the much maligned former No. 4 draft pick — would suppress his gunner instincts and blossom into a deadly three-point shooter and an above average wing defender.
Waiters was one of the only pieces that remained in Cleveland after the Love trade. Before the season the Cavs had high hopes for him. David Blatt raved about him, and there was even talk that Waiters was studying Dwyane Wade tapes to learn how to thrive alongside LeBron.
None of that materialised. On Monday night the Cavs surprised the NBA world by sending Waiters to the Oklahoma City Thunder in a three-team trade that brought them Iman Shumpert and J.R. Smith from the Knicks.
The trade came minutes before the Cavs lost to the tanking Philadelphia 76ers, taking them to a 19-16 record on the season. The best-case scenario is dead, and has been for a while.
There were warning signs with how Waiters would fit into this Cavs team from the beginning.
During training camp Jason Lloyd of the Akron Beacon-Journal asked Waiters how he felt about being limited to the roles of a spot-up shooter and a wing defender. He said. “That’s not my game. I can do it, but you know what I’m effective at: pick-and-roll and things like that.”
When the season started and the Cavs stumbled to a 3-5 start, LeBron blamed the struggles on his teammates’ “bad habits.” It was a clear shot at guys like Waiters who played for the miserable Cavs teams of 2012 through 2014:
“There’s been a lot of losing basketball around here for a few years. A lot of guys who are going to help us ultimately win haven’t played a lot of meaningful games in our league. …
“But there’s a lot of bad habits. A lot of bad habits have been built up over the past couple of years. When you play that style of basketball, it takes a lot to get it up out of you. But I’m here to help, and that’s what it’s about it.”
And then came the sad, hilarious Vines of Waiters screaming for the ball:
At the time he was traded, Waiters was shooting 25% from three-point range and having the worst season of his career. When asked by the Washington Post’s Michael Lee what his role was on the eve of the trade, he said, “I just don’t know.”
All this time there were signs of tension between Waiters and the team. Sam Amico of Fox Sports reported on Monday that Waiters still thinks he a better player than Irving, and “was not happy with what he viewed as management’s favoritism toward Kyrie.”
During the 2013-14 season, there was a rumour that Waiters gave Irving a black eye in a fight, which the two players denied.
Waiters had an awful 2014-15 season in Cleveland. For whatever reason he was unable to adapt to the role the team wanted him to play, and it forced the Cavs to change their plans.
The Cavs have had other, bigger problems than Waiters. Varejao tore his achilles and is out for the year. LeBron has been startlingly not himself, and now he’s hurt too. Love is learning the lesson that Chris Bosh tried to teach everyone before the season: playing with other superstars is hard. Blatt’s power has been completely usurped by LeBron, to the point where the team isn’t even really running his offence, Grantland’s Zach Lowe points out.
But no one embodies the way this year has gone for the Cavs — from the preseason hopefulness to the utter abandonment of that hope — than Waiters.
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