With the birth of every NBA “super team” comes the premature casualty of at least one promising pro career.
When the Boston Celtics brought in Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen in 2007 to form a championship squad with Paul Pierce and Rajon Rondo, a young high-flyer named Gerald Green paid the price. A preps-to-pros project who was becoming a highlight-reel regular by the end of his second season in Boston, Green was traded to Minnesota as part of the Garnett deal. He lasted less than a season with the Wolves before being traded again to the Rockets, who waived him after two weeks. From there he bounced around to five different teams — including two years out of the NBA playing pro ball in Russia — before finally into something of a niche these last two seasons with the Phoenix Suns.
In 2010, when LeBron James and Chris Bosh joined Dwyane Wade on the Miami Heat, it was Michael Beasley who suffered. The No. 2 pick in the 2008 NBA Draft, Beasley was supposed to be a cornerstone of the Heat franchise as Wade’s young sidekick. Beasley averaged 14.8 points and 6.4 rebounds while starting in 78 games in 2009-10, but in order to afford LeBron and Bosh, Miami traded their former future to (again) Minnesota. Lacking the needed structure of a solid and supportive franchise, Beasley had one productive season with the Wolves before falling out of favor with them, had one forgettable season in Phoenix, returned to Miami as an end-of-the-bench risk last season, and is now out of the NBA.
A championship team is formed. A potential All-Star career fades. That’s the nature of the basketball business.
So when LeBron left Miami to return to Cleveland this summer, you had to assume at least one young star-in-the-making would see his career take a turn for the worse. And indeed, soon after LeBron’s move, Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Bennett — Cleveland’s No. 1 draft picks in the 2013 and 2014 drafts — were both traded so the Cavs could acquire All-Star power forward Kevin Love from … Minnesota. (Seriously. The Wolves are like the NBA’s version of that place where obsolete smart phones get stashed. They’re the holiday toy drive in a rich suburb, taking everyone’s still-shiny-but-not-brand-new unwanted toys.)
And then there was Dion Waiters.
The 23-year-old shooting guard was taken with the No. 4 pick in the 2012 draft, back when the Cavs were still rebuilding and acquiring young talent to cultivate like precious bonsai trees. Waiters flashed big-time scoring ability at Syracuse University, but as a pro he would need a few years to develop the defensive acumen and offensive polish needed to be elite. Best-case scenario, however, Waiters could become something reminiscent of Joe Dumars from the two-time champion Detroit Pistons of the late-1980s and early-’90s. The rebuilding Cavs could afford that time to see what they had in the talented two-guard.
But then LeBron came home, and suddenly things got real crucial in Cleveland. Now there is no more time to be patient, as taking advantage of having the best player in the world in his prime requires a reliance on players who can perform up to a championship level right now — not later.
Waiters, viewed as the kind of shoot-first, pass-later, defense-maybe youngster who could easily thrive on a bad team but potentially drag down a good team, seemed like he’d be getting the Beasley treatment.
LeBron was not ignorant of the situation.
“I told (Waiters), with every team there is a guy they want to kind of place the blame on, and it will be Dion on our team,” James was quoted by Cleveland.com back in September, a month before this season’s opener. “I told him he can’t get involved in that, what people say about you. … The only way to rewrite the notion of ‘can Dion play in this’ is to play the right way and to dominate the opposition every night. That’s all he should worry about it.”
It didn’t begin well, as Waiters lost his spot in the Cavs’ starting lineup just three games into the season. Then his seemingly inevitable role as the scapegoat almost became a full-on villain character in November, when a missed pre-game national anthem led to the public revelation that Waiters is a practicing Muslim who may or may not have intentionally sat out “The Star-Spangled Banner” for religious reasons. If you’re looking to get on the wrong side of the American media and sports fans, being a Muslim who isn’t patriotic might be the fastest way to do it.
(Which reminds me of another possible factor in Waiters’ early-season struggles: Cleveland’s first-year head coach, David Blatt, made his name coaching in the Israeli pro league. In an interview he gave shortly before training camp, at a time when the world was watching Israel bomb Palestine and kill scores of innocent Muslim men, women and children, Blatt said, “In my opinion, this war is Israel’s most justified war I can remember in recent years. I’m really sorry about what’s happening in Gaza, but there’s no doubt that we had to act there, so that Israel will have quiet there once and for all, and we can live in peace.” Blatt’s comments offended and infuriated plenty of Muslims in America and around the world. So imagine Waiters being a Muslim and having to answer to Blatt as essentially his boss? Isn’t there a chance your performance at work would suffer if you knew your boss was supportive of what looked like a modern genocide against your people? These are the kind of real-life things that we rarely consider when observing athletes and judging their play.)
Waiters escaped the national anthem incident without much controversy, however, and as of late his improving play on the court has coincided with the Cavs appearing to find their groove as a legit title contender.
The Cavs are 8-3 in December, and this past Sunday when the Cavs beat the Memphis Grizzlies — the team with the second-best record in the league at the time — Waiters dropped 21 points off the bench in a game that he and LeBron took over in the fourth quarter. It was Waiters’ third game of 20-plus points this month. Waiters’ improvement also coincides with the growth of his relationship with LeBron. From Cleveland.com:
Waiters’ locker at The Q is next to James’ locker.
Waiters has been getting instruction on his jump shot from former Cavalier Damon Jones, hired by Cleveland as a roving instructor in no small part because of Jones’ personal friendship with James.
Earlier this season, though perhaps not as much lately, James and Waiters often shot after practice together, a sign that perhaps James was taking Waiters under his wing.
In other words, the opportunities are many for James to influence Waiters. Perhaps that’s what’s happening.
“The trick to that is when you’re patient, good things to happen to you,” James said. “The ball finds energy. I learned that a lot over my career here, and being in Miami … We know Dion is capable of playing some really good isolation basketball, at the same time we have to do what’s best for the team.”
Some say it’s possible that this hot streak for Waiters and the kind words from coaches and teammates are merely harbingers to Waiters eventually being traded by the Cavs before this season is over in exchange for veteran help. And yes, that is definitely possible. Two weeks ago, nobody expected Rondo to get traded from the Celtics to the Dallas Mavericks, and nobody expected the Pistons to just up and cut highly-paid starter Josh Smith. In the NBA, it’s hard to predict what’s going to happen.
But for now, it appears Waiters (10.0 points per game, 41.2% FG) has secured his spot as one of LeBron’s trusted sidekicks.
As the Cavs began to take shape this past offseasn, with LeBron and Love and Shawn Marion coming into town as veterans taking over what had been a young team, I thought Waiters was in a position similar to the one Kwame Brown once found himself in.
Back in 2001, Brown was the first player to go directly from high school to the NBA Draft and get selected No. 1 overall. He went to a rebuilding Washington Wizards franchise, with the expectation that the 18-year-old would be given time to develop his raw skills and grow past his natural immaturity.
But just as Brown’s rookie year was about to begin, Michael Jordan decided to un-retire and join the Wizards as a player. Suddenly, the Wizards went from patiently rebuilding to immediately trying to craft a playoff team around Jordan, so the legend could go out in a blaze of glory.
As for Kwane Brown, he now had to grow up quick and help the Wizards win ASAP. When Jordan worked in Washington’s front office, he drafted Brown and planned to nurture him into stardom. Now Jordan was Brown’s teammate — an notoriously demanding bully of a teammate who couldn’t afford to coddle Kid Kwame anymore. The pressure of the situation and the constant wrath of Jordan eventually broke Brown, and he never really recovered enough to have a solid NBA career. He played 12 years in the league and made more than $60 million in salary, but he never lived up to the potential he had coming out of high school.
Waiters looked like a man facing a similar crossroads this year. Fortunately, Waiters is a little older and more mature (and more talented) now than Kwame Brown was back then. Plus, LeBron isn’t the same intimidating presence as Jordan. By all accounts, LeBron treats Waiters like a person, not a punching bag.
It’s also no coincidence that Waiters is starting to thrive during a season in which he had already decided to strengthen his deen and dedicate himself more to Islam.
Enduring the trying times, public criticism and professional disappointment of the first third of Cleveland’s schedule, Waiters’ patience and resiliency is being rewarded as he becomes an increasingly vital ingredient in the Cavs’ championship recipe.