The first man off the bench in the NBA is a role that varies from team-to-team. Some players have made careers as the sixth man, while other teams don’t have a defined role and simply substitute based on need and situation.
You won’t have to worry about any excessive reminders of the James Harden trade from me, but the fact is the sixth man role for Oklahoma City has been inconsistent since the bearded one was sent to Houston before the 2012-13 season.
A year of Kevin Martin, plus a year and a half of Jeremy Lamb and Reggie Jackson wasn’t the end of the world for Oklahoma City, but serviceable didn’t cut it when there were so many offensive liabilities on the Thunder roster (see: Roberson, Andre and Perkins, Kendrick).
But three years since the infamous trade, the Thunder may have their best replacement yet in the form of Dion Waiters.
Now, Waiters has become a punch line of sorts for Thunder heads with his inclination for fadeaway 20-foot jumpers and a strange inability to make wide-open layups. He’s not a franchise player and “efficient” will probably never be an appropriate description for him.
But if you look closer, the Thunder have a young, talented playmaker who gets more attention for the bad he does and the good he doesn’t do than his actual performance on the court. Waiters has averaged 14 points per game over his three-year career, shooting 41 percent and 33 percent from 3-point range. Those are pretty solid numbers for a player that doesn’t need to produce a lot for this loaded OKC roster.
Sunday afternoon at the Thunder’s annual Blue-White scrimmage, Waiters showed off some of his playmaking ability, dishing out eight assists to go with seven rebounds and 12 points. On Wednesday against the Timberwolves, he had four, including a slick pass to Kanter for a dunk. For comparison, Waiters averaged just two assists per game last year with the Thunder with a high of five assists coming in a Jan. 26 win over Minnesota.
The scrimmage was our first look at the possible lineups under new Thunder coach Billy Donovan, and the rosters were drawn up very purposefully. Waiters was grouped with what everyone expects to be the second unit while Andre Roberson was the starter at the two-guard for the other unit. Waiters had implied through a few tweets this summer he might be in the starting lineup—and with the season three weeks away, that’s still a possibility—but it appears Donovan might ride with Waiters as the sixth man.
Sunday’s play-making was just the sort of the thing the Thunder needs off the bench. Besides D.J. Augustin, Waiters is the primary ball-handler on the second unit and needs to be as much a distributor as a scorer because Enes Kanter, Anthony Morrow and Mitch McGary aren’t players who can create open looks for themselves.
In his season-opening press conference two weeks ago, Thunder general manager Sam Presti said “some slight adjustments” could lead Waiters to making a “significant impact” for OKC. What those slight adjustments might be aren’t really a mystery—better shot selection, more passing exhibitions like Sunday and improved defense to name three—but it’s easy to forget how close Waiters is to becoming a really good player.
There’s no question Waiters has to start by having better shot selection this season. Waiters’ true shooting percentage last season was 46 percent, a terrible number for someone who averaged 13 shots per game. Unfortunately, Waiters isn’t a very good free throw shooter—just 62.5 percent last season—so using his size to get to the rim and draw fouls perhaps isn’t the best plan of action until that percentage comes up some.
Talent and efficiency are two very different things and not everyone is lucky enough to be both. Waiters is the perfect example of someone with a lot of natural ability and not much in terms of efficiency. But again, that’s OK when you have two top five players in the NBA on your team. Let’s expect good things from Waiters, but let’s not be unreasonable and expect 20 points on eight (and-1!) shots.
If Waiters is in fact going to be coming off the bench for the Thunder, he’ll need to set the pace defensively for a group that is sorely lacking in defensive ability. (Overall, last season was horrific for the Thunder defensively. OKC gave up 103 points per 100 possessions last year, the team’s lowest rating since the franchise’s first season in OKC. Only two players had ratings of less than 100, and Durant and Kendrick Perkins only posted ratings in the 99s.)
Waiters isn’t a defensive stopper, but throughout his time with the Thunder last season, he made plays that showed he could be at least an average defender if he put forth the effort consistently.
A consistent performer off the bench is not a necessity in the NBA (if you have a deep bench where everyone can contribute on any night), but rather a luxury. The Thunder enjoyed that luxury with Harden, but haven’t been able to duplicate that combination of production and consistency since he went to Houston.
However, the Thunder has in Waiters a player that is closer to Harden than any of the previous candidates who have tried to fill those shoes. Last year’s version of Waiters won’t keep the Thunder from contending for a title, but making those slight adjustments could make Waiters one of the most important pieces for the Thunder this season.
Thanks to the Thunder, Luke is an NBA fan once again after having his heart ripped out as a 12-year old living in South Carolina by the Hornets moving from Charlotte to New Orleans. Currently, he works in sales at News 9 after spending the past three years covering the Sooners and the Thunder for News9.com. Follow him on Twitter @lukemcconnell1