Cleveland Cavaliers shooting guard Dion Waiters spent the first two years of his career carving out a role as a primary scoring option for the team. Now that he's being asked to fill a reduced role as a supporting piece to the team's new Big 3, the third-year guard is understandably struggling with the transition.
Last season, Waiters averaged a career-high 15.9 points per game while taking over 14 shots per game. Three games into the new season, he's averaging just 8.3 points on 10 shots a night. Following a loss to the Trail Blazers on Tuesday, Waiters admitted his new responsibilities have been part of a learning curve:
"I'm still trying to find my way," Waiters told Northeast Ohio Media Group. "As long as I keep putting in the work, I'll be fine."
Pretty much every player on the Cavaliers is dealing with some kind of adjustment after the busy summer that brought in LeBron James, Kevin Love and others, but Waiters' role change has been the most extreme. He spent his first two years with Cleveland being expected to create offense for himself and others on a team lacking talent. Now, he's being asked to fill a more traditional supporting role with a focus on defense and spot-up shooting.
The 22-year-old has been working on those aspects of his skill set during practices, but as he told Jason Lloyd of the Akron Beacon Journal, "That’s not my game. I can do it, but you know what I’m effective at: pick-and-roll and things like that."
Unfortunately, with the likes of James, Kyrie Irving and others on the roster, Waiters won't get the same kinds of chances to initiate the pick-and-roll that he did in the past. More often, he'll be posted near the arc and offer support as a dangerous spot-up shooter pressuring opposing defenses. That should also allow him to save energy for the other end, where his defense was often lacking the past two years. "If he doesn’t do what they ask, he’ll sit," Lloyd wrote.
Waiters seems to recognize that it's on him to make changes, but he also insisted that a move to the bench wouldn't necessarily put him in a better position to succeed. While there's been speculation that the guard would thrive as a central scorer and creator for the second unit, Waiters doesn't see it the same way:
"I'm still going to be out there with two or three players," Waiters explained to NEOMG, referring to James, Irving and Love. "If I come off the bench in the first quarter, at least two of those guys are going to play the whole first quarter regardless. So it doesn't really matter. That's what people don't understand."
Waiters isn't necessarily wrong here, either. Given the heavy minutes that the Cavs' stars play, there's not really a role that Waiters can slot into where he's not forced to work with them. Even if a bench role gave him the occasional stretch as a primary option, that's just not how he fits into a team that features this much talent.
In the end, Waiters will need to figure out how to play more effectively next to high-volume stars, regardless of whether it's his preferred role. It seems like everyone involved knows this, too, particularly after the comments James made Tuesday night. Whether Waiters ultimately steps up is a different story, but the Cavs are committed to giving him an opportunity, and soon they'll discover whether he can sink or swim.