The Dion Waiters trade was one of those deals that would get laughed off of talk radio if suggested aloud. What do the Thunder want with Waiters? Why would the Cavaliers exile him only to take on J.R. Smith? Are the Knicks going to give up Iman Shumpert just to lose Smith? But now that we've had a few hours to sort it all out, there are some important lessons we can take from the madness.
1. Don't feud with your team's All-Star point guard if you want to stick around. Waiters has never really seemed to get along with Kyrie Irving, who is much, much better than Waiters. You know how that goes. Irving is sitting on a max-value contract, while Waiters has now been traded on a rookie deal. That's not completely horrible, especially considering he landed with another contender.
But there's a sense that players who get moved on their rookie deals end up with smaller second contracts. A market price has been set and Waiters' price, which is Iman Shumpert on an expiring deal, J.R. Smith's hideous contract and a highly protected first, is low. Once Waiters reaches free agency, barring something masterful in OKC, he will be worse off for having been traded. He already looks like expendable, damaged goods.
If Waiters had been more amenable to sharing the court and the ball and a locker room with Irving, perhaps Cleveland would have stuck it out and tried to find another way to pick up a perimeter defender. Instead he gets to give Russell Westbrook -- Russell Westbrook! -- the stink eye when he's open on the perimeter.
The Waiters trade is about the Thunder's tomorrow
If you're wondering why the Thunder would trade for Dion Waiters with a crowded backcourt already in place, you're forgetting how they tend to operate.
2. You can't really replace someone like James Harden. Oklahoma City has been trying to replace Harden since trading him, and Waiters is the latest experiment. To which the world replies: BWAHAHAHA. Jeremy Lamb didn't work out and now seems like a prime salary dump candidate. The Thunder have used Andre Roberson and Reggie Jackson there, as well. Jackson will be a moderately expensive free agent in July, and could be trade bait soon. He's the closest the Thunder have come to replicating Harden's mix of playmaking and scoring, but he's not nearly as efficient as The Bearded One was in his OKC days.
Waiters is really nothing like Harden. He's a poor, reluctant passer and an incredibly inefficient scorer. The Thunder and some analysts get away with the superficial comparison because both are known as scorers. But the dirty little secret is that Waiters isn't even an undeniably big-time scorer, even if you ignore efficiency. Last season Waiters averaged 19 points per 36 minutes, which doesn't scream volume scorer. (Nick Young was at 23 points per 36 last season, for comparison's sake.) If Waiters' only plus attribute right now is shot creation, he's not particularly special at it.
And so, OKC will continue to plumb around and try to make fans forget they had a(nother) legitimate MVP candidate coming off of the bench. Perhaps Waiters' antics will be distracting enough to help that goal.
3. No contract is untradeable. This is a lesson we've been taught repeatedly, but it needs to be repeated as the Knicks dumped a bad contract attached to a pretty bad player on a bad knee, who also happens to be pretty bad in the locker room. J.R. Smith isn't the worst human in the NBA, but he's on the list and he's met discord everywhere he's been. And the Cavaliers still traded for him to lose Waiters, get a pick and land Shumpert. Anyone can be traded in this here league.
4. There is nothing to prove that the Cavaliers have changed. On the surface, Cleveland made out fine in the deal. Shumpert has a reputation as a defender, and that's what Cleveland needs. Badly. Smith is a good enough shooter to provide floor balance. If you're going to have someone gunning from the two-guard spot, you'd rather it be Smith than Waiters. Plus the Cavaliers get a pick. Cool. But you know what other team made nice little deals that didn't really put a LeBron-led roster over the top? The 2004-2010 Cleveland Cavaliers.
Granted, GM David Griffin spent most of his assets landing Kevin Love. But Shump's reputation might be inflated, Smith is always three seconds away from scandal and the team just used one of its last chips without addressing interior defense. Unless Tristan Thompson is going to get moved -- and given that he shares an agent with LeBron, I doubt it -- the Cavaliers are resigned to picking up a defensive-minded center off of the waiver wire. Good luck with that.
Griffin isn't Danny Ferry, but Ferry turned out to be a pretty good personnel guy in Atlanta. Ferry's Cleveland tenure was littered with nice deals that didn't fill the biggest holes around LeBron. Until Griffin proves differently, it's hard to see how this will end with a ring.
5. Phil Jackson knows what he's doing. Color me surprised that Jackson has embraced the tank given what we know about his value system. Jackson kept his powder dry in free agency and hasn't made any rash moves despite New York sitting two games behind Philadelphia in the Atlantic. This is what the smart teams do when they're down: they get rid of bad contracts and turn players they won't re-sign into assets. The Knicks got a future second out of it, which ... yeah, big whoop. But hey! It's something.
I don't pretend to understand the shellshock Knicks fans exist under, but seeing someone actually follow a reasonably accepted blueprint for rebuilding must be nice, right? The Knicks have a decent shot at landing Jahlil Okafor or Karl-Anthony Towns in the draft and, thanks to dropping Smith, will have the opportunity to recruit a veteran co-star for Carmelo Anthony.
The Knicks are on the right path despite being 5-32. Only in the NBA.